Are solutions on the horizon?

Thursday, August 21, 2003

In a vast number of ways, the Arsenic and the Old West conference in McCook Wednesday was about much more than EPA's safe water standards and the highly costly impact they are having on small towns in Kansas, Nebraska and other western states.

Most important of all -- and this applies to many more things than water -- is the hugely unfair power of agencies within the federal government. How can it be that these agencies, without legislative oversight, are allowed to put rules into effect which cost small towns, and their residents, multiple millions of dollars, without providing enough money to pay the bills at the grass roots' level?

That terribly unfair practice -- called "unfunded mandates" -- is placing small towns in financial peril, with Bartley, for example, facing costs in excess of $2.6 million to comply with the safe drinking water standard.

More to the point, what we are talking about is the Environmental Protection Agency's reduced level for arsenic concentrations in drinking water supplies. Currently 50 parts per billion, the limitation will plunge to 10 parts per billion in January of 2006 on orders from the EPA. Therein lies the rub: Many towns in Southwest Nebraska are above the compliance level, including Arapahoe, Bartley, Beaver City, Benkelman, Cambridge, Culbertson, Elwood, Eustis, Haigler, Holbrook, Indianola, Lebanon, McCook, Palisade, Stratton, Trenton and Wauneta.

Big deal? Yes it is. Because, you see, to bring the arsenic level down to acceptable levels, using current technologies, each of the towns would have to spend hundreds of thousands and, in some cases, millions of dollars.

Wednesday's conference -- called by the Republican Valley Water Quality Coalition -- was filled with information, including helpful presentations by U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson; U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne; Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning; Dr. Steven Lamm, an epidemiologist from Washington, D.C.; and James B. Gulliford, Region 7 Administrator for the EPA.

As you might expect, there was lots of doom and gloom, with town officials, water authorities and elected leaders calling attention to the injustice of an arsenic limitation which, in their mind, has not been scientifically validated.

And, yet, amid the troubled waters, there were rays of sunshine. New and developing technologies are on the horizon, giving hope for fixing water problems without spending millions of dollars.

Among the most promising advances is the work of Dr. David Gosselin, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In his presentation, Gosselin told about two possible economical ways of reducing arsenic levels. One is modifying well pumping management strategies, as was done successfully in Stratton, and the other is injecting oxygenated water, as has been done in some Scandinavian countries.

Arsenic absorption systems, such as the one demonstrated at Adedge' booth at the conference, and reverse osmosis are other possibilities for meeting the arsenic challenge. Questionable science and unfair mandates have placed small towns in the Old West at risk. But, as has frequently been the case, common sense solutions may help meet the challenges without spending needless millions of dollars.

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