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Arsenic causes range of worries

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

BAD AXE, Mich. — As federal officials try to decide how much arsenic should be in America's drinking water, they have to contend with smart, articulate men like John Nugent and Clint Holmes.

Each man manages a small town deep in a slice of Michigan farm country where the aquifers that supply drinking water contain arsenic. But they part company on whether that's cause for worry.

"A long time ago, I made the decision that (arsenic) has to come out of the water system," says Nugent, city manager in Bad Axe. "I don't think it's a good idea to ingest poison."

Holmes, city manager in nearby Brown City, is more concerned about the costs of sharply reducing arsenic in the town's tap water. "We're talking about a doubling of the property tax and a water-rate increase that would be in the hundreds of percents," he says. "I'm not convinced this is the biggest problem in America."

The two men embody the dilemma facing the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency wants to update the limit on arsenic in drinking water for the first time since 1942.

How can the EPA set a standard that protects public health but doesn't bankrupt small towns? And how does it pacify both skeptics such as Holmes and believers such as Nugent?

So contentious is the issue that Christie Whitman, chief of the EPA, has said it was a mistake for her to revisit the standard the Clinton administration set in January. "Politically, if I'd been smart, I would've never changed it. ... I would've let the courts decide," Whitman said in August. "We were going to be sued anyway."

The EPA will soon get some help with its decision. This week, the National Academy of Sciences, a non-partisan institution, is scheduled to publish a report on the health risks of drinking water contaminated with arsenic. The report should help the EPA sort through the complex science of how much arsenic is too much.

For decades, the EPA's limit on arsenic was 50 parts per billion (ppb) — an amount equivalent to a single drop in a pond.

But recent research shows that the 50-ppb level of arsenic raises the risk of bladder and lung cancer. A report from the national academy in 1999 took the dramatic step of saying the standard should be revised "downward ... as promptly as possible." The report didn't say how far down. It did note that the cancer risk at 50 ppb, by one calculation, is 1 in 100.

Just before he left office, President Clinton ordered the limit slashed to 10 ppb. Whitman decided in March to revisit that decision. She's now considering potential limits of 3, 5, 10 and 20 ppb.

Across the country, officials in charge of the water that comes out of the tap hope that Whitman settles on 20 ppb. That would let many water systems off the hook. About 1,200 of municipal water systems, or 2%, would need to take action to reach 20 ppb, but 3,000, or 5%, would need to take action to reach 10 ppb.

Most of the arsenic in those systems occurs naturally. States in parts of the Southwest, the Midwest and New England have the most natural arsenic in the soil.

Options for reducing arsenic in tap water include:

  • A new water source. Towns could dig new wells, run pipes to rivers or tap into another community's water.
  • Activated alumina. Water is run over a layer of alumina, a chemical that arsenic sticks to.
  • Reverse osmosis. Water is passed by a membrane so that the arsenic is removed.

For small towns, the expense of purging their water systems of arsenic could be devastating. The EPA estimates that for water systems that serve fewer than 100 households, the average cost per household each year will be $300-$350, depending on the limit chosen.

"If it's your job to pay for $5 million (in system upgrades), and you're sending out 800 bills, people get excited," said Dan Tarnowski of the Michigan Rural Water Association, a trade group. "In a little town, there's no place to run. You'll hear it at the post office. You'll hear it at the coffee shop. They won't let you forget it."

That's likely to be the case in Brown City (population 1,334) and Bad Axe (population 3,462). The former is named for a pioneer family, the latter for a broken hatchet found where the town now sits.

Each city has a main street lined with a supermarket or two, a hardware store or discount shops, and a handful of retail stores. Aside from a few small factories, the towns' economies depend on providing services to the farmers whose fields of corn and soybeans surround the towns.

Brown City's drinking water contains 17 ppb of arsenic; Bad Axe's, 16-20 ppb. If the EPA sets the new limit at 20 ppb, "we've just dodged a bullet," in Holmes' words. If the EPA sets the limit at 10 ppb, the towns will have to take action.

In Brown City, the water treatment consists solely of adding chlorine to kill microbes. In Bad Axe, there's no treatment at all: The water that comes out of the ground is piped directly into residents' homes and businesses.

So to reduce arsenic, the two towns couldn't just upgrade water-treatment systems. They'd have to build those systems from the ground up.

Plenty of people in both towns pay no mind to what comes out of their taps. But in Bad Axe, perhaps because of city manager Nugent's strong stance, it's much easier to find people who are worried about arsenic than it is in Brown City.

Many Bad Axe residents are cheering the construction of a system to bring them low-arsenic water from Lake Huron. If the town gets federal money to finish that project, it will end Bad Axe's arsenic problem.

Arsenic "is a real concern," says Jerry Berger Jr., a bus driver who lives in Bad Axe and won't let his children drink the tap water. "I wish they'd finish the plant."

In Brown City, however, it's more common to find attitudes such as longtime resident Bud Welch's.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing the matter with the water," says Welch, owner of the Brown City Uptown Café, which serves soup, ice and coffee made from Brown City tap water. "I know people who are 90-something-years-old who've drunk this water all their lives."

And how does Brown City water taste? Delicious, residents say.



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