USGS Examines Trace Elements in Untreated Water Supplies

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that about 20% of untreated water samples from public, private, and monitoring wells across the nation contain concentrations of at least one trace element such as arsenic, manganese and uranium at levels of potential health concern.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that about 20% of untreated water samples from public, private, and monitoring wells across the nation contain concentrations of at least one trace element such as arsenic, manganese and uranium at levels of potential health concern.

USGS said at public wells, regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), contaminants are removed from the water before people drink it, but they may not be removed at unregulated private wells.

It said trace elements in groundwater exceed human health benchmarks more frequently than most other groundwater contaminants, such as nitrate, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds.

The report said most trace elements, including manganese and arsenic, get into the water through the natural process of rock weathering. Radon, derived from naturally occurring uranium in aquifers, also occurs frequently at high levels in groundwater. Human activities like mining, waste disposal, and construction also can contribute to trace elements in groundwater.

USGS said arsenic was above the EPA human health benchmark in 7% of wells, uranium in 4% of wells, and manganese in 12% of wells. Radon exceeded the proposed EPA maximum contaminant level (300 Picocuries per liter) in 65% of wells tested.

The report said climate and land use are important factors in trace element distribution. Drier areas of the U.S. had higher concentrations of trace elements in groundwater than humid regions. Wells in agricultural areas more often contained trace elements than those in urban areas. However, wells in urban areas contained concentrations of trace elements that more often exceeded human health benchmarks.

The USGS study was based on more than 5,000 samples collected primarily from public and private wells nationwide. This research was part of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program.

EPA, USDA Partnership

EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have formed a partnership to improve rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

The agencies said small water and sewage treatment facilities with limited funding and resources face challenges due to rising costs and aging equipment and pipes.

They said their partnership “will send federal resources to support communities that need assistance and promote job training to help put people to work while addressing the growing workforce shortage in the water industry.”

Under the agreement, EPA and USDA will provide training for new water careers, coordinate efforts to bring greater public visibility to the workforce needs of the industry, and develop a new generation of water professionals. They also will aid the exchange of successful recruitment and training strategies among stakeholders, including states and water industries.

The agencies will help rural utilities improve their current operations and encourage development of long-term water quality improvement plans. Those plans will include the development of sustainable management practices that cut costs and improve performance.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in June establishing a White House Rural Council, chaired by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The council will work throughout the federal government to create rural policies. The water partnership is part of that initiative.

Stormwater Rule

Republican senators are protesting the Obama Administration’s pending stormwater rule.

Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), David Vitter (R-La.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and John Boozman (R-Ark.) expressed their concerns in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Inhofe is the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The senators said that although current stormwater permits apply to discharges from active construction sites, EPA’s rule is expected to regulate developed sites and post-construction stormwater discharges, creating a burden on private property owners.

They questioned whether the rule would potentially exceed EPA’s statutory powers and asked Jackson to provide an explanation of EPA’s authority and report to Congress before issuing a rule.

EPA was expected to propose a draft stormwater regulation this fall. A final rule is expected in November 2012.

Inhofe said, “This rule has the potential to be one of the most costly regulations EPA has ever promulgated: it is an unfunded mandate that will cost state and local governments billions of dollars and increase costs for every ratepayer.

“EPA has indicated it plans to extend existing stormwater regulations to include newly developed and redeveloped construction sites as well as rapidly urbanizing areas. As a result, development for states and municipalities will become increasingly more complicated and expensive.

“EPA has no business getting involved in local planning decisions: the Clean Water Act is very clear that states are responsible for land use planning, not the federal government. If EPA goes through with regulating developed sites and post-construction stormwater discharges, it will penalize economic growth in the very few parts of the country where it is actually occurring,” Inhofe said.

In other Washington news:

  • EPA has awarded Lincoln, Neb., $534,000 for improvements to anaerobic digesters at the Theresa Street Wastewater Treatment Facility. Work is due completion by early 2013.
  • The American Public Works Association is supporting the Water and Wastewater Leadership Center, joining the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation, and the National Association of Water Companies.
  • EPA has invited interested parties to participate on a small-business advocacy panel to review its development of a rule to regulate perchlorate in drinking water.
  • The agency has given Leslie Gryder of Lynchburg, Va., its Mid-Atlantic award for excellence in operating a large public drinking water system. EPA said Gryder, among other things, modified the city’s disinfection process to reduce potentially harmful byproducts by 50%.
  • The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has earmarked $6 million for jobs programs. EPA will fund individual projects, totaling up to $1 million, for restoration projects that provide jobs for at least 20 unemployed people.

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