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No panic on tap for Marathon

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Arsenic water rap has city questioning a new environmental report.

Officials in the City of Marathon feel that the problem isn't the pollution of its water as much as the tainting of its reputation.

City water is safe, they insist, despite what a new report implies.

The report from the Iowa Environmental Council places Marathon on the list of Iowa cities which in the past would have exceeded a proposed arsenic level in drinking water that hasn't taken effect yet.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last week that it wants to lower the standard for arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb.

Using the proposed 10 ppb rule, the Iowa Environmental Council listed about 28 Iowa public water systems which would have exceeded that level at one time in the last 10 years.

A sample taken in June of 1994 in Marathon showed an arsenic level of 14 ppb, though it is far under the current 50 ppb maximum contaminant level (mcl).

City and state officials are afraid such a report would promote anxiety about Marathon's drinking water.

"Not one thing has changed as far as the water, but because of media attention, the words maximum contaminant level and the word arsenic - when they're all put together it makes people nervous," said Gregory Olson, environmental specialist with the DNR field office. "We need to help people understand the proper perspective - the amount of arsenic has not changed.

"Over a period of time Marathon has been slightly over and slightly under 10 parts per billion," Olson added. "In the past that has been no problem since the maximum contaminant level has been 50 parts per billion."

Olson said partial reporting of the numbers may cause people to panic when there is not a reason to panic.

"Keep in mind the maximum contaminant level is lifetime exposure," he said. "The arsenic detected in Marathon public water supply is not changing - it's the standard for the mcl that is changing. Nobody said anything (about arsenic) when it tested at 14 ppb and the mcl was 50."

According to the Iowa The study was not meant to single out any Iowa communities, but just to show where they have been at in relation to the new standard, according to Susan Heathcote, spokesperson for the Iowa Environmental Council.

"The purpose of our study was to look at water supplies in Iowa relative to the new standards they'll have to be meeting," she said. "Water utilities need to respond to this new standard."

While most cities listed in the Iowa Environmental Council report had arsenic levels under 20 ppb, several had levels well above the current EPA standard of 50 ppb: In 2000 Mason City had tested as high as 150 ppb and Clear Lake at 113 ppb.

But the DNR and Marathon city officials are quick to point out that the water in Marathon is safe and did not somehow change overnight.

The EPA recommendation would see the mcl level lowered from 50 ppb to 10 ppb effective February of 2002, Olson said. Even then, public water systems would have until 2006 to be in compliance.

"The thing people need to keep in perspective is knowing it is a lifetime exposure, and not acute like bacteria or nitrates where the health impact is immediate."

It is understandable, Olson said, for people to feel anxiety about the subject.

"When arsenic comes up, that is going to be a word that trips the trigger of some people," Olson said. "But it's actually found not only in a number of Iowa water supplies, but across the nation."

Much of the debate at the federal level seems to be due more to economics than to any particular health concerns.

"With arsenic there are some public water supplies this is going to be a real problem for; that's why there's such a huge debate," Olson said. "It costs a lot of money to treat depending on whether the level is set at 50 parts per billion or set at 10 parts per billion."

Heathcote agreed, saying arsenic can be costly for a water system to treat. "Occasional spikes are not a problem, but (water treatment) goals should be to get that level to zero," she said.

Olson said that if there was a health issue for Marathon's drinking water, residents would be hearing about it from the city or state. "If we thought something was wrong, it would be extremely critical to act quickly and do something right now," he said.

"I never, as an enforcement agent and DNR employee, ever undercut the importance of safe drinking water," he said. "On the other hand, we have to be realistic with some of this stuff."

As the February 2002 date approaches, Olson said arsenic testing will be done across the state to see where problem spots may be. "We're not going to use sample results from five, six, seven years ago," he said.

The City of Marathon is confident in its public water system, having put in more than $500,000 worth of improvements over the last five years.

"We've just put in a half million dollar water system," said Cindy Richardson, city clerk. "I'd hate to think anything adverse would be said when everything has been improving in the system.

"With the new system, we are making sure the project wasn't just according to the rules, but was better than the rules," she said.

Also, a community development block grant provided about $239,000 of the costs for a new distribution system which was just finished last month.

Heathcote said the purpose of the Iowa Environmental Council report was not to single out any systems, but to show where the state would be at if and when the new rules took effect.

Heathcote is also voicing concern for private wells. In the state, 17 percent of households get their water from private wells. "They're not required to test, but they might want to do so," she said.

"Arsenic is one thing we need to focus in on to see if additional money is needed to be directed to public water supplies to help meet new standards by 2006," she said.

There is a state subsidy available for well testing, Heathcote said, and noted there are private treatment options for people who discover possible water quality problems.

Most arsenic contamination in Iowa is a result of naturally-occurring arsenic in the ground. Health risks do not begin with a single exposure to small amounts, but generally result from use over a prolonged period of time.

For more information:

Iowa Department of Natural Resources, water supply section 515-725-0268

Marathon Light and Water Department 712-289-2261

Iowa Environmental Council 515-244-7856

On the Net:

Iowa Environmental Council http://www.earthweshare.org/



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