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Waukesha water tainted nearly half of last year
WAUKESHA – Residents are frustrated the water supply is still contaminated by radium, 12 years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to require monitoring to reduce unsafe levels of the radioactive chemical from drinking water.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says for more than 80 years, the city's water supply has been plagued by radium.
That's unacceptable to the environmental group Clean Wisconsin.
“It's scary to think about what you're drinking causing bone cancer and being radioactive,” responds Melissa Malott, Water Program Director for Clean Wisconsin.
Many residents complain about the well water. “It tastes nasty, and it smells,” explains Brenda Gonzalez, mother of three young children.
Others get boiling mad about the "public notice" in their water bill that warns of "a violation of the maximum contaminant level for radium" -- a radioactive element that you cannot see or smell or taste, but one that can increase the risk of getting cancer.
“I freaked out. I could not -- there was no words. I didn't want to drink it anymore,” recalls Martha Gonzalez, who moved to Waukesha from Kenosha.
Like many others in the city, Martha says she buys bottled water. “It's a little more expensive, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."
But is Waukesha's water really dangerous? The answer depends on who you ask.
“The short-term risks associated with radium in the water are negligible,” explains Dan Duchniak, general manager for the Waukesha Water Utility.
“It's not going to be negligible to the person who gets cancer and wonders of that's where they got it from,” responds Malott.
Duchniak showed CBS 58 that the utility was meeting all federal standards for radium the day we visited.
“It's during times when we have our facilities shut down or we have demands that exceed the current available water that we provide water that's not compliant with the radium standards,” notes Duchniak.
He says the utility's three shallow wells provide water approved by the EPA, but the eight deep wells have radium above the EPA limit, sometimes more than three times the limit.
Duchniak says Waukesha treats or blends water from three of those wells to make it safe, but the other five deep wells have water with higher radioactive levels because they are only used as back-ups, such as when water usage increases in the summer or when a shallow well shuts down due to maintenance, malfunction or a power outage.
The city can keep using back-up wells that don't meet the standard until 2018 -- thanks to a court battle over how much radium is too much.
The EPA says in 1976 it first set the standard that radium should not exceed five picocuries per liter.
At that time, the DNR says Waukesha was in violation and has remained in violation for decades, though the utility has been demonstrating safe levels at the DNR's quarterly testing for the past few years after Waukesha sued the EPA and lost.
Tony Ratarasarn, drinking water engineer for the DNR, says Waukesha meets the standard "on an average” but not necessarily on any given day because “that's not something tested every day."
He says the court settlement between the utility and the EPA has allowed the DNR to “utilize flow rated averaging."
The DNR says that "average" is a less stringent guideline than other communities have to follow, and that's why the Waukesha Water Utility is the largest supplier in the country that does not meet the EPA standard for radium.
By 2018, the water leaving any Waukesha facility must meet radium standards, not just the average of all water in the system.
“It is their responsibility to follow the laws and protect the public,” insists Malott.
The health department says if 100,000 people consume water with five picocuries of radium per liter every day for life, four would get cancer from it. The DNR says that was considered an acceptable risk.
Health officials say if the radium level is doubled, so is the number of deaths.
But the EPA says it did not enforce the standard until 2000, when the agency required increased monitoring to insure every customer received drinking water with radium levels below five picocuries.
“Many people felt it wasn't a problem, and they shouldn't have to spend money to address it,” notes Peter McAvoy, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who serves on the Coalition for Effective Implementation of the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among all states and Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes to minimize entities outside the basin from tapping into the fresh water source.
So Waukesha says it filed a lawsuit challenging regulations of a toxin that is only proven to be dangerous when it accumulates in the body over long periods of time.
“Ideally you wouldn't have any toxic substances in the drinking water,” says McAvoy.
The DNR says radium occurs naturally in the rock surrounding the city's deep wells and likely contaminated the water with radium levels above five picocuries for more than a 80 years.
“The EPA set the limit where it's at for a reason,” states Malott.
The DNR says after Waukesha lost in court several years ago, the utility began treating the water by removing the radium or blending with non-contaminated water.
“As they continue to put these practices into place, I don't think people out there should be that concerned, as long as they continue to move ahead,” says McAvoy.
But the attorney with Clean Wisconsin does not think the city is moving fast enough.
“People have to be vigilant,” says Malott. “And we need to demand more of our government to protect us."
She says so much is still unknown about the long-term effects of chemicals like radium on the body.
“Sometimes we don't know the long term impacts, the chronic exposure levels; we don't know how that chemical interacts with other chemicals,” says Malott.
So some residents install water filter systems or water softeners, which remove radium.
“The issue for Waukesha is not just about radium. It's about long-term water quality and long-term water supply,” explains Duchniak.
He says the water deep underground is being used up faster than it is being replaced -- causing many contaminants, including radium, to become even more concentrated in that water over time.
Duchniak says the utility studied more than a dozen ways to supply enough safe water for the next century and concluded that requesting Lake Michigan water was the best option.
“I wouldn't bank on that,” chides McAvoy, adding that the proposal will take years to process and could be denied by the states and provinces that border the Great Lakes.
Duchniak counters: “If we don't receive approval for Great Lakes water, we'll have to go to an alternative that is not sustainable and will cost the city $200 million."
Malott disagrees and says Waukesha could take steps to make the water safer today, by reducing the need to use the extra water from the back-up wells.
“The best, easiest, most cost-effective, timely solution is to implement aggressive water conservation measures,” she notes.
Malott says the average person in Wisconsin uses 150 gallons of water per day, far more than other states.
Clean Wisconsin says studies show offering more rebates to install low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucets as well as high-efficiency appliances and pumps in homes and businesses would reduce costs to maintain current water facilities and to implement new ones.
“If they implemented water conservation measures that were strong right now, they could stop using radium contaminated well water and they would save the community the $150 million they would spend on a Great Lakes diversion,” explains Malott.
A plan prepared by consultants for the utility says new toilets alone would reduce water use "up to 500,000 gallons per day.”
"Water conservation alone cannot solve our water quality problems," says Duchniak.
He says Waukesha adopted a conservation plan in 2006 and just this month approved an update of the plan, which includes an increase for toilet replacement rebates from $25 to $100.
McAvoy says even more would be saved if native plants replaced grass.
“It would make a lot of sense,” says the professor. “It would be a lot cheaper. You wouldn't be treating as much water. Every time you move water there's an expense tied to that."
He says the cheaper alternatives like conservation and more shallow wells are sustainable, plus they are easier to manage and don't require outside government approval -- giving residents control of their own destiny and their own health.
Duchniak says Waukesha does not have a higher incidence of cancer compared to the rest of Wisconsin, but a report from the utility shows the exposure that's been going on for decades continues despite Waukesha abiding by the temporary EPA guidelines.
The report shows Waukesha released water that did not meet EPA radium standards 46% of the time in 2011, 23% of the time in 2010 and 62% of the time in 2009.
If you have an issue you'd like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.