U.S. Water News Online
LIDGERWOOD, N.D. -- At sunset, Darryl Jelinek still has
plenty of harvest ahead of him. He knows he will be driving his green
combine through acres of corn well into the evening, farming the land
that belonged to his parents.
When Jelinek took over the family farm, he also got an
arsenic-laced water supply.
It's a legacy shared by many in southeastern North Dakota. Farmers
who battled hordes of grasshoppers in the 1930s spread the government
-- supplied poison on their fields.
Jelinek would have to pay $20,000 to join a rural water system and
get clean, treated water. It is more than he can afford.
But Jelinek and thousands of others could get some help from the
Environmental Protection Agency, which plans to upgrade water systems
in this rural corner of the state.
The move is prompted by new federal rules limiting arsenic in
drinking water to 10 parts per billion, instead of the current 50
parts per billion. The change is scheduled to take effect in January
It will mean more cleanup work in a 570 square-mile Superfund site
in parts of Ransom, Richland and Sargent counties.
Erna Waterman, a Denver-based EPA project manager, said the
project eventually could expand far beyond the original site, to
bring cleaner water to residents in all three counties who need it.
``A lot more people will have a chance to get on to rural water,''
The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the area to determine the
possible solutions and costs. Those results are expected by early
Waterman said the EPA could begin the cleanup work by next summer.
The project likely will include improvements to some municipal
systems, like one in Wyndmere. The city of Hankinson will be tied
into a rural water system, and officials are pushing for cities
outside the three-county area to join it.
Residents not served by municipal water could get subsidies to
connect to the rural system, or free water treatment units at their
Waterman said they may not get such an opportunity again.
``It's miraculous they have a second chance,'' she said.
When the EPA first offered to help rural residents about a decade
ago, many turned it down. They thought their water was fine, and
balked at the notion of paying a monthly bill for water that had
flowed for decades from their private wells.
Darryl Jelinek's parents were among those who declined the EPA
``They felt like they drank the water their whole lives and it
didn't hurt them,'' he said.
But there are risks. Federal health officials say long-term
exposure to arsenic could increase the risk of cancer, heart trouble
and other health problems.
The poisonous semi-metallic metal occurs naturally in soil and
water. The arsenic-laced bait farmers spread on their fields to fight
grasshoppers is blamed for driving the level higher.
It was a serious step against a problem that threatened many
``I've even heard of stories where people said grasshoppers ate
the wooden handle off the pitchfork,'' said Jack Long, director of
municipal facilities for the state health department.
Some 40 years later, tests in the Richland County town of
Lidgerwood showed high levels of arsenic in the groundwater.
The surrounding area was subsequently designated a Superfund
environmental site, making it a priority for cleanup.
The EPA connected hundreds of residents to a rural water system
for a small fee, improved municipal treatment plants and donated
treatment filters to homes.
Joel Heitkamp, general manager of the Southeast Water Users
District and a Democratic state senator, said government assistance
seemed contrary to the independent nature of those who refused help.
``Change doesn't come very easily to North Dakotans. We're a very
conservative state,'' he said.
Heitkamp said he now gets calls from a younger generation of
farmers worried about the arsenic in their water.
``I think that there's a lot of people out there whose mother or
father didn't take it and who would take it now,'' he said.
Jelinek, 42, would like to raise children in the area but worries
about how arsenic might affect them. He wants another shot at the
offer his parents declined.
``I know some of my neighbors my age would do the same thing,'' he
The EPA estimates more than 4,000 water systems serving about 11
million people nationwide will be above the new arsenic limit when it
takes effect. That includes about 30 cities and schools in North
Violators face a $10,000 penalty each day after the January 2006
deadline. Heitkamp said most towns in southeastern North Dakota could
not afford to make water system improvements without federal help.
``Most of them are bonded and in hock up to their ears,'' he said.
``In our business, getting the money is the key. If you can't get the
money, you can't serve anyone.''
While the Superfund designation puts southeastern North Dakota in
line for extensive federal aid, other areas of the state are
struggling to pay for needed water system improvements.
The single largest population affected by the new standard in
North Dakota is Devils Lake, which has about 7,500 people on its
municipal water system.
Mike Grafsgaard, the city engineer, says officials are looking for
a new aquifer to supply Devils Lake's drinking water.
``What we're looking at for an estimate right now is somewhere in
the $25 million range,'' Grafsgaard said. ``For a town of 7,500
people, without some type of federal aid, any type of new water or
treatment is out of reach for us.''
He said the city is pursuing a grant through the EPA that would
bring about $1 million once local matching funds are added. He's not
sure how Devils Lake will get the rest.
``People keep thinking, `Well, it's two years off.' But there's a
great deal of work and time that goes into'' developing a new water
system, Grafsgaard said.
Heitkamp said he expects to travel southeastern North Dakota this
winter to explain the EPA's cleanup plan to residents at town hall
``It's like a second shot at the pot of gold, and if they miss out
this time, they're in trouble,'' Heitkamp said.
Jelinek said he doesn't plan to miss out.
``It's a totally new generation of people out here,'' Jelinek
said. ``If it was bad for my parents' generation and they have
lowered the threshold, it's bad for me.''
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