Senators face uphill battle on water rules

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Efforts by Nebraska's U.S. Senators to lessen the impact of EPA's strict drinking water standards are much appreciated by the small communities of Nebraska, but McCook officials fear the legislative proposals may be too little and too late to be of benefit to mid-sized towns like McCook.

Both Mayor Jerda Garey and City Manager John Bingham pointed out that McCook is under administrative order to comply with the contaminant limits for nitrates in drinking water. That order has been in effect since 1998, and -- up to this point -- McCook has not taken final action to fix the problem and comply with the order.

But -- at long last -- the city is getting closer. Additional wells, lower in nitrates, are being drilled south of town. The hope is that the additional well water can be blended with the city's current water supply to lower nitrate concentrations.

As it turns out, however, nitrates are just one part of McCook's water problem. Now, McCook -- along with hundreds of other American communities -- must also lower the level of uranium, arsenic and other trace minerals.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stricter limit for uranium has already gone into effect, starting back in October 2003, and the arsenic standard of 10 parts per billion will take effect in January 2006.

The EPA folks had the best of intentions. They based their new standards on a 1999 report by the National Academy of Science, which showed that 3 parts per billion of arsenic in water posed a risk in humans for cancer and other illnesses. However, in the outer reaches of Nebraska, common sense tells us the EPA may have overreacted. First, consider what Sen. Nelson has to say about the new arsenic limit of 10 parts per billion. "That's the equivalent of 10 drops of arsenic in a 10,000 gallon swimming pool." Second, look at the first 122 years of McCook's existence, during all of which the residents have been drinking groundwater with naturally occurring arsenic and uranium. During that time period, the average life span of those living south of the Platte in Nebraska (including McCook) is among the highest of any area in the continental United States.

Yes, absolutely,we want to be safe. But, in doing so, we don't like to be forced into stupid actions, brought about by scientific studies which haven't been fully thought through. We know it's an uphill battle, but we hope that Sen. Nelson and Sen. Hagel continue to stand up for the people of rural Nebraska in their quest for common sense in the setting and implementation of water standards.

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