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EPA regulations may cause UA water shortage

By Dave Paiz
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
August 25, 1999

The UA could be facing a water shortage by the end of next year if recently proposed radon standards for Tucson water become federal law.

The Tucson City Council last Wednesday voted to close more than a third of the wells managed by Tucson Water if they exceed the proposed standards for radon contamination. The vote came in anticipation of new federal regulations on radon contamination currently under review by President Clinton's administration.

"The UA may find it impossible to buy (water) from the city," said Steve Holland, director of UA Risk Management and Safety.

Radon is a naturally occurring colorless, odorless and tasteless gas formed by the decay of uranium in the earth's crust. As the gas forms, it moves up through the soil where it can accumulate in watersheds. It can also enter homes and other buildings through faulty building foundations.

A report on the official Environmental Protection Agency Web site states that radon gas is the number one source of naturally occurring radiation. Radon gas can be inhaled, ingested in drinking water and absorbed through the skin in bath water.

Scientists believe that decades of exposure to high levels of radon gas can cause cancer. There are presently no EPA standards that regulate radon levels in drinking water.

The threat of contamination is significantly higher for radon in air than in water.

Radon gas emissions are measured in units called picocuries. According to EPA estimates, in indoor environments, exposure to an annual average of 4 picocuries of radon gas per liter of air is comparable to the effects of smoking a half pack of cigarettes a day.

To equal the threat posed by four picocuries of radon per liter of air, a water supply would need to contain 40,000 picocuries of radon per liter.

The EPA proposal being considered by the Clinton administration would set a maximum limit of 4,000 picocuries of radon gas per liter of water for drinking water in buildings that stay at, or below the average annual limit of four picocuries per liter of air.

From her Washington D.C. office, EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods said the new standards will not be as severe if radon reduction measures are already in place.

"In the context of a radon reduction program, we can set a less stringent standard if steps have been taken to reduce radon in the air," Woods said.

Woods said that drinking water programs without additional radon reduction measures will have to adopt the much stricter standard of 300 picocuries of radon per liter of water.

The new measures being proposed by the EPA are part of a larger strategy aimed at regulating the levels of radon, arsenic and sulfates in drinking water as mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996.

Tucson Water tested its wells for radon three years ago and found that roughly one third of them exceeded the proposed limit of 300 picocuries per liter of water. Under the proposed city standards, wells in excess of 300 picocuries will be shut down. Multiple well shutdowns could force the city to declare a water emergency.

The UA draws most of its water from private wells which it supplements with water purchased from the city. If the city declares a water emergency, Holland said the UA may have to consider using CAP water or will have to find ways to use existing sources more efficiently.

Holland mentioned the option of using reclaimed water for irrigation purposes. This would more than likely involve a costly expansion of the water delivery systems currently in place at UA facilities across town.

"We have no on-campus storage facility," Holland said. "The only reservoir we had is behind the Student Union and that's about to be demolished."

Holland said that a lot depends on whether the proposed EPA standards become strictly enforced regulations rather than non-enforceable guidelines.

"We would be subject to it if it was regulation," he said.

The EPA divides water standards into two classes. Primary regulations are legally enforceable standards that deal with waterborne contaminants known to have adverse effects on human health. Secondary regulations are non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants that may stain teeth or skin, or may influence the taste, odor and color of drinking water.

Woods said that Tucson Water and other utility companies would not be held to the EPA's 300 picocurie limit if the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality enacts its own drinking water standards at the 4,000 picocurie level as part of an overall radon reduction program.

The ADEQ is delaying the release of new water safety proposals until the pending EPA regulations have been approved.

As state and local officials await the final decision on the proposed federal standards, Holland said that the UA plans to begin testing its wells for radon in the near future.

"It hasn't been an issue in the past, but there is a fairly immediate plan to get samples and see how we stack up," he said.

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