New arsenic rules may be costly and not implemented
|By EDWARD LEVENSON
Arsenic in drinking water may sound like a terrorist plot.
In reality, low levels of arsenic naturally purge from underground mineral deposits into groundwater supplies for towns in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
"We don't think it's a real health issue," said Fred Potter, president of Trumbauersville Borough Council. "People have been drinking the water for hundreds of years. I haven't seen anyone die from arsenic poisoning."
Trumbauersville's water, which goes to about 350 customers, has been well below the federally mandated maximum arsenic level up until now.
However, a reduction in the allowable level from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion will require Trumbauersville and other local water systems to invest in equipment to filter out most arsenic. The costs likely would be passed on to customers through rate hikes.
Potter said the borough was looking at a possible expense of $100,000, but now hopes a less costly filter will do the job for about $20,000. One of the three wells has an arsenic level of 10 to 14 parts per billion, just above the new standard. The other two are below the limit.
"We thought 50 parts per billion is more than safe. Ten to 14 is very, very safe," Potter said. The municipal waterworks first will install a test filter to see if it lowers the arsenic level.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 changed the level from 50 parts per billion to 10 part per billion, based on scientific research that long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water could result in certain types of cancer, such as bladder, lungs and skin.
The agency estimated that 3,000 community water systems nationwide, most of which serve fewer than 10,000 people, would have to take action to reduce arsenic levels to the new standard by the January 2006 deadline.
An official with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said the agency is giving water systems technical advice and helping find sources of funding.
"The technology out there is reliable and affordable," said John Fabian, chief of technical services for DEP's water supply management program in the southeastern region.
A pilot program, done last spring by AquaAmerica for a water system in the Collegeville area, demonstrated that a pressure filter using iron particles to attract the arsenic effectively lowered the level below 10 parts per billion, according to Fabian.
Fabian said he is working with Perkasie to apply for a Growing Greener grant to pay for an arsenic treatment system using "new and innovative" technology. The borough's water system has about 3,200 customers in Perkasie and 900 in Hilltown and East and West Rockhill.
The Perkasie Borough Authority would have to spend $500,000 to $600,000 to install a filter on one of its wells, which has an arsenic level of 12 parts per billion. Annual operating costs would be $40,000.
"We'll need to keep it forever. The rock is never going away. The arsenic will always be there," authority manager Gary Winton said last month.
The authority may shut down another well that is above the limit to avoid having to put in a second filter.
The authority has proposed a rate hike of 8 percent to 10 percent to help pay for the arsenic treatment, replacement of aging water mains and drilling an additional well. This would add about $6.40 to the average household's quarterly bill of $64.25.
Fabian said water systems that have multiple wells may be able to shut down one and still have adequate supply from the remaining wells.
Other alternatives if the arsenic level is too high include drilling a new well or purchasing water from an outside supplier.
If a system has two nearby wells - one contaminated and one not - it may be possible to pump the water simultaneously and fall below the arsenic standard, according to Fabian.
Towns may be able to get low-interest loans for water system upgrades from Pennvest, a state program that aids municipalities.
An EPA official in Washington said the agency sponsored a dozen demonstration projects nationwide in 2003 and 30 this year to test low-cost technologies to remove arsenic from drinking water. Congress appropriated $5 million for testing in 2003 and $5 million this year.
Veronica Blette, with the Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, said smaller water systems that have done little if any treatment in the past may have a harder time meeting the new standard. While some extensions of time may be granted, water suppliers cannot ignore the requirement.
"We do expect everybody to come into compliance," she said.
Edward Levenson can be reached at (215) 538-6371 or elevenson@phillyBurbs.com.