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Water contamination worries thousands

BY SUSAN KIM | Trenton, NJ | March 26, 2000

Reports of water contamination have thousands of residents in many states concerned about the quality of what's coming out of their


In New Jersey, results of a year-long study indicated that radium has tainted the drinking water supply of some 200,000 residents in that

state. The monitoring study began in late 1996 to check radium levels of a specific type of radium -- radium 224 -- within the state's 617

public water suppliers. Prior to that, water suppliers were required to check for two other forms of radium, 226 and 228. But because

radium 224 decays within 72 hours, it wasn't found in earlier tests.

After tabulating the results, the state ordered 17 water companies to reduce the level of the naturally occurring radioactive element in their

systems. Most have complied by taking wells with elevated radium levels out of service while a few have installed equipment that removes

the radium.

Increased levels of radium have been found to increase the risk of cancer.

Government officials maintain that the elevated levels in New Jersey pose no immediate threat to the public and that those 17 suppliers

represent the extent of the problem.

But environmentalists, who praised the initial monitoring study, also criticized the Department of Environmental Protection for making a

one-time effort instead requiring annual testing of that type of radium.

Federal standards for radium levels are based on exposure to the element over a 70-year period. Radium levels of some New Jersey wells

were up to eight times higher than the federal standard.

The majority of the contamination was found in the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, which lies beneath most of central and south New

Jersey. The state passed legislation which makes available interest-free loans of up to $10,000 to help homeowners whose wells are

contaminated with radium.

Scientists have found that nitrate, which is released from fertilizer, as well as various pollutants associated with development, can cause

more radium to leak from the soil into groundwater.

New Jersey residents are also concerned about water contamination from methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a chemical added to gasoline to

make it burn more cleanly and reduce air pollution. MTBE has apparently been leaking from underground storage tanks into

groundwater. MTBE was originally added to gasoline to meet the oxygenate requirement under the Clean Air Act. Since 1990, when

Congress amended the Clean Air Act to require states to reduce levels of carbon monoxide and ozone in the air, MTBE has been

increasingly used.

The state of California, which had been at the forefront of a debate about MTBE how soon to ban MTBE from use, has passed legislation

banning MTBE by the year 2003. The state has been dealing with the MTBE issue since 1996, when it was first discovered in a drinking

water well in Santa Monica, said Krista Clark, a regulatory affairs specialist with the Association of California Water Agencies.

"The amazing thing about that is that MTBE only became widely used in California the same year, 1996. That means it leaked from tanks

and hit drinking water wells at record speed."

The state of Maine has already stopped using gas with MTBE, she added.

Unfortunately the human health effects of MTBE are still widely unknown, she said. "This is one of the major problems with the original

approval of MTBE. There were never any human health studies done and to this day there are still very few. There were a lot of studies

done on the effects of inhaling MTBE but not on drinking it. Some animal studies have shown an increased tumor rate in rats exposed to

MTBE but this is all we know."

Even tiny amounts of MTBE can give water a foul taste and smell.

Resident concerned about MTBE "should contact their local environmental health office or water district," she added. "Unfortunately, not a

lot of smaller community groups know about MTBE still."

Church World Service Disaster Resource Facilitator Dick Eskes said that, for the average resident, MTBE is a concern. "There is no question

that it is contaminating the water and affecting the marine life," he said.

Even if MTBE is removed from gasoline in every state, the risk of contamination could continue for 10 more years, scientists from the U.S.

Geological Survey reported. That report, which was based on data from 31 states, estimated that about 35 percent of community water

wells -- about 9,000 wells -- are located within a 1-kilometer radius of a leaking underground storage tank.

At least some of the increased public awareness about water contamination has been credited to release of the movie "Erin Brockovich" in

which a legal secretary forced Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to pay a $333 million settlement for poisoning the water in a small

California desert town.

But a real-life lawsuit against San Francisco-based PG&E and one of its main suppliers is scheduled to go to trial in November. Some 1,500

employees and their families, as well as other residents and farmers who lived or worked near three PG&E gas compressor plants are

contending that their water supplies were contaminated with harmful levels of cancer-causing chromium 6 from the 1950s to the 1970s.

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