Treatment costs soar over rules on arsenic

Middlefield is being forced to spend 7.4 million to drop the arsenic content.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- New federal limits on how much arsenic can be in public water supplies have sent treatment costs soaring in some communities.
Since last January, drinking water supplies have not been allowed more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic content -- equivalent to about that many drops in a backyard swimming pool.
Middlefield, a community of 2,400 people about 44 miles east of Cleveland, is spending 7.4 million to drop the arsenic level from 12 parts per billion to meet the new standard.
Nationwide, the new regulation has led to scores of expensive projects that indicate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may have underestimated compliance costs.
"Is the juice worth the squeeze?" Geauga County Health Commissioner Bob Weisdack said. "Or are we regulating just to regulate?"
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the new maximum in 2001, down from 50 parts per billion, but gave communities five years to comply. The new standard put an estimated 4,100 public water systems across the country in violation.
The toxin occurs naturally in soil and also can enter the water supply through industrial and agricultural pollution. Research has linked exposure to higher levels of arsenic to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, liver and prostate, as well as other diseases.
What's happening
The new standard has forced three small Northeast Ohio towns -- Middlefield and Chardon in Geauga County and Seville in Medina County -- to build or upgrade water treatment plants despite being just over allowable levels. Middlefield's level was two parts per billion over the limit; Chardon and Seville each tested at six parts per billion over the limit.
The three communities combined are spending close to 16 million. Chardon and Middlefield water customers can expect billing increases of 28 percent to 70 percent over the next three years to help cover the costs.
Officials who question the costs of upgrading treatment plans should realize the reduction in health risks, said Eric Burneson, a risk-management official with the EPA.
"The data we have on the national level says it's worth it," Burneson said. "It's justified."
Federal officials at first delayed implementing a new arsenic regulation after expressing concern over the potential price.
The 10-parts-per-billion standard represented a compromise to minimize cost. In 2001, the EPA estimated the national cost of compliance at 3.62 billion over 20 years.
But officials with the American Water Works Association Research Foundation pegged actual cost at closer to their initial estimate of 4.6 billion to 21.5 billion over 20 years.
What paper found
The Plain Dealer reviewed eight projects across six states -- including three in Ohio -- found more than 210 million in spending to meet the new standard.
In Middlefield, the EPA forecast annual water rates rising between 58 and 71 for the average household. But a three-year price increase adopted by village council to help pay for the new treatment plant will drive up the average annual bill by 148.
That increase still won't cover the entire cost of the plant, village Administrator Dan Weir said. Money will be pulled from elsewhere in Middlefield's budget to help pay for the plant, delaying planned street projects.
"It's difficult for a town this size to come up with that sort of money," Weir said. "In the end, this just hurts."
Some officials say they are paying millions of dollars to treat a problem that cannot be found in their communities.
"I just don't see the justification," Chardon City Manager Dave Lelko said. "We're doing all this to lower the arsenic level by a few parts per billion. How many lives is this going to save? How many?"

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