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New federal water guidelines worry Texas communities
Something in the Water

Drinking water systems across the country have until January 2006 to comply with new federal standards for the amount of arsenic and radionuclides (RN) in drinking water. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the standards will help save lives, some Texas communities are confounded by the costs of compliance.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has until December 2004 to adopt the EPA standard on RN and January 2005 on arsenic. If TCEQ fails to act, the state could lose the ability to enforce water standards in Texas.

But level reduction won't come cheap--the technology necessary is expensive. Some officials in Texas communities feel their water is just fine and want more proof of health risks before implementing changes. Preliminary studies show changes to water systems could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I'm pretty comfortable saying $400 million is what it's going to cost to get all Texas water systems to come into compliance [for arsenic]," said Tony Bennett of TCEQ's Water Supply Division. "We're looking at $50 million for radionuclides."

Colorless, tasteless
In January 2001, the EPA reduced the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for arsenic from 50 parts per billion (PPB) to 10 PPB in more than 74,000 water systems across the country. Reducing arsenic levels in drinking water could help prevent as many as 31 cases of bladder cancer each year, 25 cases of lung cancer and as many as 30 deaths per year, according to the EPA.

About 4,000 U.S. water systems will have to install treatment facilities or take some other measure--like finding an alternate water source--to meet the standard. The compliance deadline is January 23, 2006.

In Texas, more than 200 water systems would fail to meet the EPA standards for arsenic if the deadline for compliance was September 2004, Bennett said.

"We are estimating that about 220 water systems have at least one source that would exceed the arsenic MCL," he said.

Arsenic is colorless, tasteless and occurs naturally. It is used in many insecticides, herbicides and paints. It is present in many rocks in the Texas soil and, through years of erosion, managed to seep into water supplies.

But arsenic's effect on drinking water is a major point of contention for affected water systems that want more proof, according to Larry Fleming, director of public works for the city of Andrews.

"This is all naturally occurring, and we've been drinking it for years," Fleming said. "We're talking about parts per billion, which is so minute that science has only gotten down to that point recently.

If it is proven harmful, then yes, we're all for it. But until then, we'd like to see more studying done."

Early studies have revealed that the cost for getting Andrews' current water supply in compliance would be enormous, Fleming said.

"We're looking at $1.3 to $1.7 million, with operating expenses of $200,000 to $500,000 just to run it," he said. "The fiscal impact would be astronomical on our small community."

City officials have asked for proposals on different types of water treatment, including reverse osmosis (RO) and chemical treatment, but are currently in a holding pattern.

"Right now we're waiting to see what TCEQ tells us," Fleming said. "What we'd like to see is TCEQ sit down at the table and hear our proposal and then tell us what we're expected to do."

Fleming represented Andrews in Austin at a June meeting of the Texas Water Advisory Council (TWAC) and said he came away feeling like the EPA and TCEQ would be willing to work with them.

"A favorable thing we heard that day was that [the EPA and TCEQ] would deal with each individual entity," he said. "We were very encouraged by that."

Paradise lost
The city of Eden is also preparing to find solutions to its own water problem--radionuclides. Radionuclides, like arsenic, are naturally occurring elements that get into water supplies.

Considered heavy metals, uranium and radium are the two radionuclides TCEQ is most concerned with.

"Radionuclides are a group of different chemical contaminants that have ionizing radiation," said TCEQ's Bennett. "They're naturally occurring in different aquifers at different depths. Because they're heavy metals, there are concerns over contact with them."

Like Andrews, Eden is looking for ways to bring water quality into compliance with the RN standards. As is the case in Andrews, city officials want more proof.

"We're not concerned about the quality of our water," said Genora Young, Eden's community development director. "We're concerned about staying alive as a city long enough to drink it."

The RN standard for drinking water is five picocurries per liter for radium and 30 micrograms per liter for uranium. Eden's water tested at 5.8 picocurries per liter, slightly more than the allowable level. That was enough to tie up a significant portion of the city's $2 million annual budget for studying potential solutions, said Mayor Charlie Rodgers Jr.

"Thirty-five percent of our budget already goes to water and waste," he said. "We've spent $50,000 to study this [problem] and gone nowhere. We want to be in compliance; we just can't afford to be in compliance."

RO is one solution Eden officials have looked into, but, in the end, the price of an RO facility is too high, said City Manager Ed Medders.

"An RO system at best would cost $1 million and that's for the system itself," he said. "Then you have to think about maintenance and hiring at least two more employees."

Young said the EPA has not provided proof that drinking water with Eden's content level is harmful.

"Show us the data that [shows] that," she said. "We live here because we want to. The quality of life is wonderful here and no one glows in the dark [from the water]."

Squeaky wheels
Texas communities are looking for answers, and their questions are getting louder.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Medders said. "And we need to do a whole lot of squeaking."

State Sen. Robert Duncan, chair of TWAC, heard the noise at the June meeting and said the representatives in attendance from Eden, Andrews, Midland and Seminole definitely were heard.

"I think the affected communities did a good job of raising the issue and identifying their particular problems, which I'm sure are problems being felt all over the state," Duncan said. "These standards are so stringent, you worry about people having confidence in their drinking water."

The Texas Radiation Advisory Board also concluded that the standards are too stringent and that Texas' water supply is in good shape.

"If you look at our current water system, 97 percent of the population gets water from public drinking water systems that meet federal and state standards," Bennett said.

TWAC monitors the status of the EPA standard and the progress of water systems, and tries to help smaller systems find solutions, Duncan said.

"Right now we're kind of between a rock and a hard place," he said. "You would hope financial help will be available both at the federal and state level, but also that help will also be available in the form of time [to comply]."

Clint Shields