Purity's Price: Communities struggle to meet costly new federal standards for drinking water
Four years ago, Yorkville, a growing community of 6,189 people in north-central Kendall County, faced a guessing game over how to make its local water supply safe to drink.
New standards for radium were under discussion at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Getting a jump on improvements before they were handed down could save money in the long run. But guessing what the standards would be was financially risky.
Yorkville waited. The EPA tightened standards as expected. But a shot at a loan for repairs had dried up. Now Yorkville residents face a spike in their water rates to pay for $8 million in improvements and to cover potential fines from the state EPA for missing the deadline on meeting the new standards.
More than 450,000 Illinois residents, including those in Yorkville, are drinking water that doesn’t meet federal standards for radium, a radioactive element that can cause bone and sinus cancer. And every local water system that serves more than 25 people faces a December 8 deadline to meet the maximum contaminant level for that element.
Compounding the problem for local officials, a source of assistance is running dry. A state loan program designed to help communities adopt the new standards will be depleted by summer and will not be replenished until next winter, according to Illinois EPA officials.
Currently, 109 of Illinois’ local water systems don’t meet U.S. EPA standards, but only 29 are on track to get the low-interest loans that are available through the state and federal governments’ Community Water Supply Loan Program, according to state EPA documents. That means locals will have to dig into their own treasuries to rid their water systems of errant elements or face sanctions, including fines, from the state.
Community water systems that don’t meet the standards range in size from Bonnie Lane Water Supply, which serves 25 people near Yorkville, to Joliet, which serves 106,221 people in Will County. Central Illinois towns with radium problems include Colchester in McDonough County, Bryant in Fulton County and Glasford, Mapleton and Brimfield in Peoria County.
Radium makes its way into north and north-central Illinois water supplies because certain types of bedrock deep underground naturally have the contaminants. Over time, the radioactive elements decay, are ejected from minerals in the rocks and dissolve into the water supply.
In 2000, the U.S. EPA set a standard of 5 picoCuries per liter for two different types of radium combined. One pico curie per liter means that a radioactive compound disintegrates into a liter of water at the rate of 2.2 atoms per minute. The EPA estimates that the lifetime risk of cancer for water with 5 picoCuries of radium per liter is about 1 in 10,000, doubling for each additional 5 picoCuries per liter.
Yorkville has an average radium level of 14.9 picoCuries per liter.
The water supply for 250 people in a mobile home park near Marseilles in LaSalle County has an annual average radium reading of 26.3 picoCuries per liter.
The state EPA stopped enforcing the radium standard in 1990 after the U.S. EPA published new rules increasing the amount of radium that could be allowed in drinking water, says Roger Selburg, head of the state EPA’s public water supplies division. Because the older standard was stricter, allowing less radium, questions arose about which standards would apply. That debate went on for about 10 years. Then in 2000, the U.S. EPA finally announced it was sticking with the older, stricter 5 picoCuries per liter standard.
Hence Yorkville’s dilemma.
“By having that standard be debatable for years, our community kept saying, ‘Don’t do the public infrastructure work until it’s mandated,’” City Administrator Tony Graff says. When the tougher requirement was finally adopted, Yorkville decided the most prudent option was to connect its drinking water system to the local sanitary district and allow that agency to collect the radium. But the city won’t come into compliance with the new standard until July 2004 at the earliest.
One saving grace is the city’s growth. Developers are building three new wells that are scheduled to come online in July 2004. Those wells will be capable of producing water that meets the EPA’s requirements. And once those wells are online, the infrastructure can be built to transfer radium from the older wells to the sanitation district.
“We’re in a better position than most because we have growth dollars coming into the community,” Graff says.
But the city will still have to spend $8 million to put its long-term plan in place. In addition, Yorkville may have to pay a fine for not complying on time. Once the state EPA starts an enforcement action against noncomplying communities, the case is referred to the state attorney general, who can request that the court fine the local water system. The fine can range as high as $50,000 for the first day of noncom- pliance and $10,000 for each additional day. But Graff says he thinks Yorkville might get a break because it has tried to fix the problem.
Water systems that have taken steps to lower radium levels likely will get a pass, the EPA’s Selburg says. “If they’re well under way and they’ve started well into the construction, it’s doubtful a decision would be made to continue with enforcement actions.”
Still, some of the 109 communities that are out of compliance may not make the deadline because funds are short in the government’s loan program, says Ron Drainer, the state EPA official who oversees those loans.
The federal government provides about $1 billion annually to the states for the program, and Illinois gets nearly $30 million. The state must match 20 percent of the money, making about $35 million available each year. Last year, the agency leveraged funds by selling bonds, making an additional $25 million available.
But Drainer estimates the total need for the program is $500 million, including money to fix other problems such as a 2005 deadline to meet new standards for arsenic. “We have more demand than we have available funds.” He says the rocky economy has stalled discussions about increasing funding to help maintain aging water systems.
The state loans make projects much cheaper because the interest rate is 50 percent less than the market rate. During 2002, a $1 million loan at a 2.675 percent interest rate would save a community water system $343,000 over the 20-year loan period.
Because the radium deadline is approaching fast, the state EPA has put communities with that problem near the top of the priority list for loans. Communities that don’t get a loan would have to start paying to fix the problem now, and the state EPA might be able to help them refinance it later when more loan money becomes available. “But that’s more expensive and may not be doable for certain communities,” Drainer says.
Yorkville, though, will have to get loans at the full market rate. That community was knocked off the eligibility list for a government loan because it had a stopgap solution.
The new rules also mean an increase in water bills for customers. Environmental officials estimate households in systems serving 10,000 people or more will see their bills increase $30 per year, while those in systems serving less than 10,000 people will spend $50 to $100 more per year.
Graff estimates new construction to fix Yorkville’s two existing wells will mean a spike in residents’ water bills of up to 15 percent. That increase could have been as high as 70 percent if the area hadn’t experienced growth that necessitated the new developer-built wells. Residents also will have to pay the full market-rate interest on the loan for the new construction as well as any fine the courts level against the town.
“We could have resolved this issue 13 years ago,” Graff says, “and it would have cost the taxpayers a lot less money.”
Chris Wetterich, a recent graduate of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, was an intern for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Illinois Issues, July/August 2003