Arsenic in water needs to go in 2006

Arsenic in water is odorless, tasteless and may only cause health problems if consumed in large quantities over the course of decades. Yet by 2006, many Island County residents may have to start spending big bucks to remove arsenic from their water supplies.

Doug Kelly, a hydrogeologist for Island County, said 18 to 20 percent of all Island County wells have tested for arsenic in the last couple years at levels exceeding the upcoming 10 parts per billion federal standard (ppb). When compared to the state’s other counties, this is an unusually high percentage, said Vin Sherman, Island County’s water program supervisor.

The 10 ppb standard is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Water Drinking Act. Passed in 2002, it drops the highest acceptable level of arsenic in water from 50 ppb to 10 ppb starting in 2006. That change put far more water systems in violation of the rule, Kelly said.

“When we were at 50, we had very few systems that exceeded that value,” he said.

Andy Campbell, a South Whidbey water systems manager who maintains a number of community water systems, said more than 5 to 6 percent of the water systems he tests are above the 10 ppb benchmark, at least triple the amount of water systems that were above 50 ppb.

Vin Sherman said the county’s unusually high arsenic levels is due to high levels of unconsolidated sand and gravel eroding into the water table. When water moves through an aquifer, stream or river, arsenic bonds to the iron in the sand and gravel. The arsenic is eventually drawn into community water supplies, he said.

Sherman and Kelly said arsenic has been linked to various types of cancer and other diseases, although Kelly said someone may have to drink from the same water source for 50 to 60 years to develop an illness. There’s a “one in a million” chance that someone would become ill, he said.

But with stricter federal laws going into effect about one year from now, Island County residents may have to collectively pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to either filter the arsenic from the water or use another method to meet arsenic standards.

Though many Whidbey Island communities getting an early start to meet the lower standards, the impending regulation has been met with a fair amount of resistance, said Coupeville water systems manager Clyde Desty.

“It can be a significant financial burden,” he said.

Small water systems will be hit the hardest. Desty said the smaller the number of hookups, the more each water customer will have to pay.

A typical community system will likely have to pay $40,000 and $600,000 to design and test an arsenic filter system, and to monitor it, said Andy Campbell and Desty. The whole process could take 18 months, Desty said.

Campbell said if a community can’t afford the system, state public works trust fund loans are available. He said communities should mention the arsenic levels when funding,

“Arsenic is the ticket to get the loan,” he said.

With the coming financial impact of the impending arsenic standards, Steve Hulsman of the state Department of Health noted that no affected water system is required to lower arsenic levels immediately after the new rule goes into effect. Instead, the timeline will take into consideration the levels of arsenic in the system. The higher the concentration, the more quickly water systems must act, he said.

Who is affected

County residents most affected by the new standard are those who live on a water system used by more than either 15 homes or 25 people. School and other non-transient non-community water systems day cares and schools are subject to the new requirements, as well.

Labeled as Group “A” water systems, these systems fall under the federal government’s guidelines, with enforcement authority granted to the state. The state adopted the rule on Jan. 14.

More unclear are what standards will apply to water systems used by communities with less than 15 homes, called Group “B” water systems, and individual wells. Island County’s Sherman said the state Board of Health is still deciding if the 10 ppb level will apply to the Group B water systems.

Not wanting to wait until 2006 to lower arsenic, some Whidbey Island communities are already tackling the problem, hiring water system managers.

According to water system managers Campbell and Desty, the best option to meet the upcoming arsenic standards is a filtration system. Campbell said several filtration systems have already been installed around South Whidbey, including one on a well near Sunlight Beach, Campbell said.

Desty said the filtration machine begins to work when arsenic-tainted water reaches the filtration machine’s contact tank. At that point, a chemical reaction enlarges the arsenic particles. A filter then removes the particles.

This is the most expensive option, but also appears to be the most reliable, Campbell said.

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