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City to begin uranium treatment
By: Tracey Overstreet, Grand Island Independent

Grand Island needs to remove 600 pounds of uranium a year from city water to stay in compliance with federal safe drinking water standards, and it won't be cheap.

Utilities Director Gary Mader told the Grand Island City Council Tuesday night that water customers are likely to see a 30 percent rate increase October 1 to pay for uranium removal in three of the city's 21 wells located on an island wellfield in the Platte River.

That rate increase translates into an additional $1 to $10 cost each month for residential users in the city.

But the hike could mean an extra $10,000 to $18,000 in cost per month for industrial customers such as McCain Foods and JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking -- the city's two largest water customers.

"We could drive them out of business," said Councilman Mitch Nickerson, who works for McCain.

At issue is the leaching of naturally-occurring uranium into the city's water supply. A map of Nebraska shows the metal is common in both the Platte River and Republican River basins, Mader said.

The issue arose in 2003 when the Environmental Protection Agency set the drinking water standard for uranium at 30 parts per billion.

Drinking water at that level, when consumed at two quarts a day for 70 years, can cause kidney damage, said Assistant Utilities Director Tim Luchsinger.

Grand Island's wellfield water had initially tested below the 30 parts per billion level. However, over the years, it has crept up for a reason not yet explainable, Mader said.

The city has remedied the problem to date by reducing the use of the water wells that have the high uranium readings. That works fine during the fall, winter and spring months when water consumption is low, but when summer hits, the additional wells are needed.

When the higher testing wells are used, the city has blended their water with water from lower-testing wells, but Luchsinger said, that too isn't going to work long term. The overall uranium readings continue to rise.

The city hired consulting firm HDR of Lincoln to study treatment options -- three of which were reviewed thoroughly.

A process called ion exchange, which would use granular resins to absorb the uranium, was deemed to be too costly. A treatment facility would cost $27 million to build and $3 million a year to operate.

Instead, the city looked at two lower cost options -- coagulation/filtration, which uses alum or ferric chloride to trap the uranium, and adsorptive media, which uses a manufactured material to absorb the uranium. Both of those options cost about $18 million to build and about $2 million a year to operate.

When utility staff learned that the adsorptive media option could be phased in over time, that option quickly became the most cost effective.

Luchsinger said the current proposal is to bid the project this spring and build it this fall. The first phase is expected to cost $2 million in equipment and $1 million in construction labor. It will cost $1 million a year to operate the adsorptive facility.

Financing that first phase, which would remove 85 percent of the uranium in three of the city's wells, would cost about $1.1 million a year if it was financed over 20 years. Twenty years is the life expectancy of the treatment equipment, Luchsinger said.

That cost, correlated with the $4 million in annual water sales, would mean about a 30 percent rate increase to finance the project, Mader said.

"It's an aggressive schedule," Mader told the council.

But the Utilities Department wants to move quickly on the project to avoid a state-mandated administrative order from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to correct the city water supply. Administrative orders can be more aggressive and more expensive, utility officials cautioned.

The city water system is currently in 100 percent compliance, but peak water demands this summer could change that if the city doesn't move quickly to respond, Mader said.

Council President Peg Gilbert wondered if the city would be better off building a full-scale water treatment facility that could deal with uranium, nitrates and any other issue that may come along.

The problem is, it's not yet known what other elements the water system may need to treat for, Mader said. Advancing the lowest cost option on a phased-in schedule gives the city more flexibility to adapt to new technology, new federal regulations or other changes that may occur, he said.

Keeping costs as low as possible is also critical so as not to jeopardize water customers, Mader said.

The council expressed concern about industrial customers bypassing the city and installing their own wells.

"It's a major impact on the rate structure," Mader told the council.

Gary Mader