Rockford’s groundwater—is there a threat to health?

Part 1 of a series

Since Rockford residents received notification that the city water system was in violation of drinking water standards for radium and other contaminants, several citizens have raised concerns about their own tapwater.

One of them, Sarah Mabry, had previously sent a letter to former Mayor Doug Scott about water problems in her area. When he did not respond to her concerns, she sent the letter to this newspaper, which we published in our March 16-22, 2005, issue. Mabry’s complaint specifically addressed water pressure problems in her area with orange-colored water. She stated that residents in the area had problems with toilets not flushing, expensive repairs to dishwashers and toilets, and the lack of attention to the problem by city officials. Reports of radium in the water added to people’s health concerns.

Rockford Water Superintendent Tim Holdeman talked with The Rock River Times about the state water standards for radium and other pollutants.

Holdeman: The regulations changed in December 2003 with regard to radium. The levels were the same. What changed was where we sampled—the “compliance points”—where we collect the water sample. In 1997 and the year 2000, what we did was go to an actual customer’s tap near each one of the wells. It was the water that came from the well into the distribution system and began its journey through the city. What is significant is that all the wells are mixed to get it to that point. Wells only operate about eight-12 hours a day on average. So even if you lived just down the street from a well that wasn’t operating, you’ve got water. But only about half of the wells are on at any given time.

We have about six months to do a comprehensive plan, and it’s not just radium. We’re looking at the system as a whole. We’re hoping to get into the 2006 budget, the first phase of implementing the plan, whatever that plan might be.

TRRT: Is there a committee working on the plan?

Holdeman: We are going through a process of selecting the engineer.

TRRT: Will that person be hired by the city?

Holdeman: Yes, by the Water Division of Public Works.

TRRT: Is there a deadlline set for finding someone?

Holdeman: No, but we will be meeting with the EPA on March 30 to talk about our final regulatory schedule, and it will include discussions with regard to the engineering setting and when the first phase of construction could begin and how long the period of construction will be. It’s such a major program, it might last for several years. The total sum of money will not be spent in one year.

TRRT: Some of that money would come from the EPA?

Holdeman: We have no outside grants. These are federally unsupported—unfunded mandates. They have a state revolving loan fund. But because we have such a good bond rating, it’s usually the administrator’s part that’s more costly than it is to go out and sell bonds. It would probably be funded by the ratepayers; like any utility, our ratepayers fund our capital improvements.

TRRT: So you’ve done the research, you know what the problems are, and you need to come up with a plan of attack and find the solution?

Holdeman: That’s a farther reach than this system, and gives us a chance to supply better water.

(TRRT mentioned the Sarah Mabry case.)

Holdeman: It’s difficult to explain this to people like Sarah Mabry, who wanted change now. As a water system grows, it stretches itself to the limit, and it’s built to meet the demand. There are always the outskirts of our service area, and that’s where pressure is the greatest issue. She lives in the northeast. There is some development going on there. It would most likely be with that development that we would put in new wells. In 1997 and 2000, that’s what the regulations told us to do. But then the regulations wanted an extra margin of safety for the customer. They said even before you go into that distribution system, we want to go back and sample the individual wells. It doesn’t change the quality of the water the customers receive; there is a regulatory issue and identifying those wells so they can be addressed in the future. There is no immediate risk. If there had been, we would have to turn off the wells.

It’s the beginning of a regulatory process that drives us to fix the wells and to have the regulatory requirements helps us find what’s wrong… In addition, the regulatory requirements ensure that each community addresses this problem. Even though it’s not a health effect in the state… that’s the other thing about radium—you take a group of people in the United States. If you took 10,000 people, the radium level is [such that] 2,200 of those, or 22 percent, will die of cancer today. That is a fact. If you take another 10,000 people, they have radium (containing) water with levels greater than five for 70 years, and you have 2,201 deaths. So that’s the incremental risk that we’re dealing with in terms of the protective nature of these regulations. (The danger is) it takes 70 years to be exposed to enough that it would do anything, and then it is one out of 10,000.

There are things we do every day that have much more risk to our health. That’s the world of regulations we may have in relation to this utility. What we are trying to do—the Water Division and the Public Works Department is looking at using this opportunity. We have 39 wells, five of which are high in radium. Loves Park spends about $1 to $2 million on wells; that’s the price tag we’re talking about just for addressing radium. But there are other problems in our system. We have an aging pipe system, we have iron and manganese—the red water. We have lost pressure in some portions of the city. The water utility has some problems. The director of Public Works, Mr. Will Bittner, and I want to look at this as an opportunity not to just address radium, but it is addressing a broader spectrum of issues for the water utility. This may be the regulatory drive that causes us to do something, but there is a whole set of issues that can also be addressed with an incremental amount of money that gives a return all at the same time. That’s what we are in the process of doing–putting together a plan or elevated towers that would address the issue in the northeast.

To be continued…

From the April 27-May 3, 2005, issue

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