Arsenic and old wells: Nebraska towns looking at estimated cost of $120 million to make drinking water safe
By Algis J. Laukaitis, Lincoln Journal-Star

Stromsburg residents have lived with arsenic for decades. It's in their drinking water -- the same water they use to cook their food, bathe their kids and wash their clothes.

Lynne Klawer, a project coordinator in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resources, checks the pH and temperature of water being flushed from a Stromsburg, Neb., water line before she collects a sample for lab testing. UNL water scientists are working with several small-town water systems to find lower-cost ways to reduce or eliminate arsenic in drinking water. Scientists hope to develop recommendations to help small water systems comply with new lower federal limits for arsenic in drinking water by the 2006 deadline.

"We always knew what our levels were, but we were always below the limits," said city clerk/treasurer Barb Cotter.

Those arsenic limits, established by federal regulators, were once 50 parts per billion. That meant drinking water below that number was safe to drink. Stromsburg's wells consistently registered at 25 to 28 parts per billion. (One part per billion is the equivalent of one drop of water in a 10,000-gallon swimming pool.)

But in 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new drinking water standard -10 parts per billion - to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The new standard made Stromsburg's water unsafe to drink in the eyes of the federal agency. And now local officials had to do something to correct the problem.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in groundwater. It has been linked to certain types of cancer, birth defects and other medical problems. Health officials say long-term exposure poses a significant health risk to the public. The National Academy of Science has reported that even at three parts per billion there is a risk of four to 10 deaths from bladder or lung cancer per 10,000 people.

According to a compilation of data from the U.S. Geological Survey by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, high levels of arsenic are most prevalent in western Nebraska groundwater. Levels drop toward the east. In western Nebraska, scientists believe it comes from volcanic ash deposited in the area about 5 million to 35 million years ago.

"The thing that is complex about arsenic is its chemistry is very complicated," said David Gosselin, a UNLresearch hydrogeologist. "We haven't looked at all the geological materials related to this but we do know its in younger sands and gravels."

Stromsburg is not the only Nebraska community in trouble with arsenic. At least 75 small public water systems statewide are facing similar problems. The EPA says they have until January 2006 to comply with the new arsenic standard.

It won't be easy, or cheap. The Health and Human Services System estimates it will cost more than $120 million to bring levels down to safe limits.

"It's a big burden. It's something that's going to be hard for them to comply with," said Lash Chaffin, utilities section director for the League of Nebraska Municipalities.

Communities with high levels of arsenic can either build a water treatment plant or dig new wells - both very costly options. They can also merge with other communities and form a regional water distribution system.

"Regionalization is going to save a lot of systems," said Jack Daniel, administrator of the state's Environmental Health Services Public Water Division.

Daniel said officials of many smaller drinking water systems have told the department they may have to revert to installing private individual wells.

"From a public health standpoint, that is a step backward," he said, explaining that private wells sometimes contain bacteria and high nitrate levels.

"Nebraska state government has been working hard with the U.S. Rural Development Agency - to get towns to look into the regional concept," Daniel said. "We don't want them to go private."

Small towns are being offered various types of financial help, including community development block grants up to $250,000 and low-interest state and federal loans. Communities also can issue capital improvement bonds.

Daniel said communities that can't meet the federal deadline also can ask for more time to meet the new arsenic standard.

"The closer you are to 10 (ppb) the closer you can stretch it out to nine years," said Andy Kahle, the state's manager for the new arsenic rule.

Stromsburg, which has three wells with high levels of arsenic, has not tabulated the cost of solving its problem. But Cotter said it's going to cost "big bucks." That's one reason the town about 15 miles north of York is looking to UNL for help.

Gosselin is leading a team of experts that is trying to help 10 towns find ways to reduce the public health risks and the economic impact of the new standard. The towns are: McCook, Elmwood, Stromsburg, Cambridge, Benkelman, Oshkosh, Shelton, Lodgepole, Anselmo and Broadwater.

Initially, Gosselin looked at changing the rate, time and duration of pumping wells to see if it would have an impact. Research done by UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources shows arsenic amounts in a well can vary depending on the time of day and and season. Initial results show changing pumping methods and times have a minimal impact.

Now Gosselin is looking into in-situ remediation technologies to reduce arsenic levels in groundwater. The low-cost method involves injecting groundwater high in oxygen into an aquifer. The oxygen-charged water causes iron oxides to form, similar to rust, that naturally attract and bond with the arsenic. Gosselin said the rustlike substance remains in the aquifer and does not pose a health risk.

The problem with in-situ remediation is it requires high concentrations of iron in groundwater, which is not found everywhere in the state. So Gosselin hopes to explore the use of creating some type of reactive barrier system around a well, which will allow water to pass through but will "strip" arsenic levels out of groundwater.

Alan Tomkins, director of UNL's Public Policy Center, is leading a group to find other solutions, too.

"We are interested in the issues and challenges confronting Nebraska communities as they address arsenic issues," said Tomkins. "We wonder if the university might provide some help -- The university has broad expertise on a variety of issues and might be able to bring a lot to the table."

One idea is to use the Antelope Valley Project, now under way in Lincoln, as a model to help solve the arsenic problem. Tomkins points out that the community came together on Antelope Valley -- a flood-control, transportation and urban revitalization project in downtown Lincoln - and found solutions to improve the community.

Preliminary discussions are under way with a few towns to see if they would be interested in partnering with the university, state policymakers and staff, other community leaders and residents living in arsenic-troubled towns.

Said Tomkins:"We want to see if there is an opportunity to take a lemon and make it into lemonade."

Arsenic by the numbers

10 - the new health standard (in parts per billion) set for arsenic in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

50 - the old health standard (in parts per billion) for arsenic in drinking water.

33 - atomic number for arsenic.

75 - number of small Nebraska towns with high levels of arsenic in their drinking water.

80,000,000 - the number of people who may be affected worldwide by arsenic poisoning, according to World Health Organization. The problem is especially acute in Bangladesh.

$120,000,000 - estimated cost of solving Nebraska's arsenic problems.

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