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Toxins threaten drinking water

The Colorado River is facing pollution issues so dire that it is number one on the American Rivers' list of the most endangered rivers.


"The drums can't remain in the floodplain because the big concern is if the waste ends up in the river - that's the nightmare scenario."

—Eric Eckl

The Colorado River, a water supply for some 25 million Americans, is facing pollution issues so dire that it is number one on the American Rivers' list of the most endangered rivers of 2004.

The report released yesterday by the environmental non-profit is aimed at bringing awareness to immediate but solvable pollution problems with ten of the country's rivers.

"This list focuses on what can happen this year," said American Rivers spokesman Eric Eckl. "The list is not of the most polluted rivers in the country, but rather those that face the most threatened futures."

The problems on the list include everything from toxic waste to abandoned mines to sewage release. The listed rivers cover the U.S. from New England to the west coast.

The Colorado River, which runs through five states, faces three major issues. First, a rocket fuel plant in Nevada is leaching the chemical ammonium perchlorate into the river. Eckl said the chemical is linked to cancer and thyroid problems, but that there's no clear consensus on how much it takes to harm humans.

Some agencies claim there is a low risk of thyroid problems and no cancer risk from the levels of perchlorate currently found in drinking water. The Council on Water Quality -- a group with member companies including Lockheed Martin, Aerojet, Kerr-McGee Chemical and American Pacific Corporation -- argues that low perchlorate levels pose no short or long-term health effects.

"What we do know is that it's already been measured in the river, and water from the Colorado is used for drinking as well as watering crops that end up on our tables," said Eckl. "Pollution in the Colorado River affects all Americans."

The contentious issue of perchlorate continues with arguments over government regulations on how much can be allowed into waterways. The Department of Defense is seeking exemptions for some plants that produce this chemical, a move that is angering local water districts.

Just this week, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California announced its opposition to the Defense Department's exemptions.

"Granting broad exemptions to the Department of Defense would be bad public policy," said Metropolitan board Chairman Phillip Pace in a statement. "While we appreciate the need to allow the Defense Department to do its important work, we need to safeguard water quality. Ultimately, protecting the public is a task we share with the department."

The MWD reported that evidence of perchlorate has been found in more than 300 groundwater wells through Southern California.

The second major issue facing the Colorado River is radioactive waste. In Moab, Utah, a small city in the eastern section of the state, sits a former uranium mill site. The mill owners abandoned the site, and now the Department of Energy (DOE) must deal with the remaining 12 million tons of radioactive waste sitting on the banks of the river.

"The drums can't remain in the floodplain because the big concern is if the waste ends up in the river - that's the nightmare scenario," said Eckl.

Eckl says the DOE is currently working on an environmental impact statement for the waste, and the decision on where the waste goes will happen this year. One idea involves moving the waste to an underground salt cavern. "The only responsible thing to do is move it," he said. "We hope the cavern idea is as promising in real life as it is on paper."

Down the river in Arizona, the Colorado faces its third major issue. More and more communities are popping up in the lower river basin, and with new homes come more septic tanks and sewage. Those systems don't remove all of the toxins in wastewater, said Eckl, leaving the problem of excessive nitrate in the water.

According to the American Rivers report, excess sewage is a problem plaguing many of the rivers in the U.S., including several on the list released this week. Eckl said his organization is impressed by how much the local communities are doing to stop the sewage problems, but more help is needed.

"They need federal help - and yet the Bush Administration is asking Congress to cut federal assistance to these projects by one-third," he said. "Obviously we don't think the government should pay for all of it, but some consistency is needed."

The number of organizations and people that assisted American Rivers in producing the river report is long. It is a bottom-up report, said Eckl. He added that the response to the report thus far is excellent.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano announced today that she will call a meeting of the state's congressional delegates to focus on pollution problems. Napolitano also called for a summit with the governors of California, Utah and Nevada to discuss long-term pollution control.

Overall, the report lays most of the pollution blame at the doors of the federal government, saying "Congress has effectively shifted the burden of cleaning up contaminated river bottoms and other toxic sites from polluters to the public."

"Letting our kids splash in the creek, eating a fish we caught on a camping trip, and drinking water from the tap without worrying are things that Americans should be able to take for granted," American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder in a news release. "Washington is misspending our money if our children won't enjoy these things, too."

The other nine rivers on the list are the Big Sunflower River, the Snake River, the Tennessee River, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers (counted together), the Spokane River, the Housatonic River, the Peace River, Big Darby Creek and the Mississippi River.

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Related Links:

American Rivers Web site

Links to report of endangered rivers

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