U.S. Water News Online
MADISON, Wis. -- Communities across eastern Wisconsin could
end up spending millions of dollars to comply with a federal mandate
to reduce radioactive radium in groundwater by 2006.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's orders could drive up
residential and commercial water bills by dozens of dollars. But
local officials and business owners say fears over radium are
overblown and don't justify spending so much money on water
``People have been drinking the wells in Peshtigo since the '60s.
I don't see anybody glow at night,'' city engineer Steve Cota said.
The EPA says radium in any amount could hurt people if it's
``Any radioactive emission can cause cancer,'' said Miguel Del
Toral, regulations manager for the EPA's Midwestern regional office
in Chicago. ``We have no choice.''
Studies have linked radium, a naturally occurring radioactive
element, to bone cancer.
The element is concentrated in groundwater in the north-central
United States, including southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern
Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, according to the EPA. It also could be
present in groundwater along the Atlantic seaboard from New Jersey to
Georgia, the agency said.
Radium permeates an underground sandstone aquifer that stretches
from Michigan's Upper Peninsula through eastern Wisconsin into
Illinois and Indiana, said Don Swailes, the Wisconsin Department of
Natural Resources' drinking water quality section chief. Many
communities in eastern Wisconsin from Peshtigo to Milwaukee's western
suburbs depend on the aquifer for drinking water.
The EPA set the minimum groundwater radium level at 5 picocuries
per liter in 2000. A picocurie is a unit of measurement of radiation.
The AP examined a DNR list of 47 cities and water utilities with
radium levels above 5 picocuries. They have until December 2006 to
come into compliance or face fines of up to $5,000 per day in
violation, Swailes said.
Options range from blending contaminated water with clean water to
bring radium levels under 5 picocuries to finding completely new
water sources. Typically, the more wells a municipality has sunk into
the aquifer, the more expensive treatment becomes.
The city of Peshtigo, for example, plans to pay anywhere from
$15,000 to $200,000 to locate and seal off sections of the city's two
wells that draw from radium-contaminated areas, Cota said. The city
should be able to absorb the cost within its operational budget, he
The Fond du Lac City Council, however, decided in September to
build a $24 million treatment plant that will blend water from Lake
Winnebago with radium-tainted water from the city's 16 wells. Water
users could see a $40 increase in their quarterly bills to cover the
plant's costs, City Council president Martin Ryan said.
But the EPA never made the case that the city's 6.5 to 7
picocuries per liter levels were truly harmful and people don't drink
enough groundwater to get cancer, Ryan said. He called the standards
``It's like taking a two-liter bottle of soda and taking two sips
out of it and pouring it down the drain,'' he said.
Higher bills could drive water-dependent businesses out of
Wisconsin, said Joe Reitmeier, Fond du Lac Chamber of Commerce
``To require communities to spend this much money is nuts,'' he
Joe Shea, owner of Shea's TravelMart in Fond du Lac, said he may
have to double the fees at the TravelMart's car wash to keep it open
as water bills increase.
``All this is way overkill,'' Shea said. ``Some of these
legislators ought to go out there and see what it's like to be in
business before they pass all these laws.''
The city of Waukesha filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA standards
as too strict, but a federal appeals court found in favor of the
agency in February.
Now the city is considering an $8 million plan that calls for
drilling new wells to draw clean water. That water would be used to
dilute radium in water from existing wells. The plan also includes
installing treatment systems at other wells, said Dan Duchniak,
Waukesha Water Utility general manager.
Water bills could increase from the average $17 a month to $18.70
to pay for the project, Duchniak said.
The Brown County Water Authority, which serves Green Bay suburbs
including De Pere, Allouez and Ashwaubenon, is considering a $134
million pipeline to draw clean water from Lake Michigan, authority
president Ron Simonson said. Bills could increase from about $21 a
quarter to $80 to cover the pipeline, he said.
Fond du Lac city officials have asked U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond
du Lac, to seek more federal assistance to offset their compliance
costs. But Patrick Mullane, Petri's legislative assistant, said
there's little chance of that. Legislation the city wants has died on
the floor of the House at least twice since 2000, he said.
Simonson said water is still a good bargain despite higher bills.
``That's less than you pay for cable TV,'' he said. ``And you
don't need cable TV to live. You need water.''
the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.