Radioactivity: The New Water Rights Dispute?

By Beacon Staff

The state Department of Environmental Quality is requiring 43 homes in the Lakeshore Heights Homeowners Association outside of Kalispell to install reverse osmosis water systems because of concerns over radioactivity in the drinking water.

It is the first public water system in the state to receive a mandate from DEQ to treat for gross alpha radioactivity. There is also one public water system in Jefferson County treating for uranium-derived radioactivity, according to the DEQ.

Water issues are always touchy, and this one is no different, as it raises that age-old concern of government influence on private property. And, since it involves a relatively foreign concept such as gross alpha radioactivity, skepticism may be heightened.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines gross alpha as a form of radioactive contamination, and warns of health risks, including the potential of cancer after long-term exposure.

One Lakeshore Heights resident calls the DEQ requirement “government intrusion at its worst.” A neighbor calls it “a hoax,” another says the state is “shoving this down our throats” and yet another calls it “intimidation.”

But the DEQ calls it necessary, as dictated by federal law and health standards. And, to be sure, there are residents in the Lakeshore Heights Homeowners Association who agree with that assertion.

No matter where the homeowners stand on the issue, it appears their situation could be used as a model for years to come, as both science and government become more aware of the potential consequences of radioactive contaminants in drinking water.

“We’re breaking new ground here,” said Andy Hyde, an engineer at Kalispell’s Carver Engineering. “Lakeshore Heights is kind of at the cutting edge of finding a solution.”

The homeowners association must also construct a water chlorination facility to treat for coliform contamination, a separate requirement that has also irked some residents. Lakeshore Heights is a subdivision built in the 1960s and is located west of Kalispell between Middle Foy’s Lake and Lower Foy’s Lake.

Emily Gillespie, an environmental engineer with DEQ in Kalispell, acknowledges the opposition, but said “EPA selected this threshold” and her agency must comply with the federal law.

“There’s nothing easy about implementing this into an existing community,” Gillespie said. “We certainly understand that. But we don’t have any room to negotiate that.”

The DEQ has determined that gross alpha particle levels in the drinking water at Lakeshore Heights exceed legal limits and are potentially harmful. Gross alpha particles are naturally occurring radioactive substances. Unlike better-known radioactive contaminants such as radon, gross alpha radiation consists of solid particles and is not a gas.

At Lakeshore Heights, samples dating back to 1992 showed non-detectable gross alpha activity, Gillespie said. But over the years, possibly as more water was pumped through the wells, Gillespie said the levels have risen, coming out of the bedrock walls.

Federal law, as mandated under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, states that the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for gross alpha activity is 15 picocuries per liter. Gillespie said Lakeshore Heights has been averaging over 30. According to a 2009 Environmental Working Group report, Lakeshore Heights has the highest recorded gross alpha levels of any public water system in the state.

Because tests at Lakeshore Heights revealed above-maximum levels over the course of four quarters, or a year, the homeowners association was required to form a treatment plan, Gillespie said. It was decided that all 43 homes must install a reverse osmosis water system under their kitchen sinks.

Systems were installed in five homes in January as part of a one-year pilot program. Shortly after the program runs out, the rest of the homes will have to put in the Culligan devices, likely by June of 2011, Gillespie said. If homes don’t comply, the homeowners association can be fined $10,000 per day and the non-complying home could have its water turned off.

For Gary Robbins, a retired doctor and one of five board members of the homeowners association, the root of his frustration is his neighborhood’s designation as a “community” or “public” water system. By DEQ definition, a system is considered public when it provides water for consumption to at least 15 service connections or regularly serves at least 25 people.

Robbins said neighborhoods surrounding the Lakeshore Heights Homeowners Association subdivision likely derive their drinking water from the same aquifer and presumably also have high gross alpha levels. But they are not labeled as public water systems, so they are not subject to the same EPA laws.

Robbins wonders why the association can’t dig more wells so that it no longer has more than 15 homes – or service connections – per well. He sees this as an easier pill to swallow than allowing government influence to come into his home.

“We just want to un-become a community water system and then we can take care of our own problems,” Robbins said.

But Gillespie said once a system is labeled public, “there isn’t really any going back,” even if wells are built to bring a neighborhood under the service connection limit. And Hyde, of Carver Engineering, said the cost of digging more wells far outweighs the cost of installing the Culligan devices. Carver Engineering is the engineer of record for the pilot program.

Hyde said the systems, at a reduced wholesale rate, cost $682 each. Robbins pegged the price at $1,200 per household plus a couple hundred dollars to replace the filter every few years.

Tina Malkuch thinks drilling more wells would cover up the problem and create new problems. In fact, she would like to see more government oversight over all wells in the state. Malkuch works at Carver Engineering, lives in Lakeshore Heights and is the water operator along with her husband for the neighborhood.

“I care about water quality,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of trying to circumvent the threshold.”

Robbins, who has lived in Lakeshore Heights for 33 years, said he has done his own research, consulting scientists, poring through research documents and utilizing his own medical experience to conclude that Lakeshore Heights’ gross alpha levels aren’t dangerous. He doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to justify the EPA’s requirement.

According to the EPA, “some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

“It’s a joke,” Robbins said. “It’s no more dangerous in these amounts than if you go out in the sun or if you get chest X-rays.”

One of Robbins’ neighbors said she knows of independent tests conducted in neighborhoods surrounding Lakeshore Heights that have found gross alpha levels above the legal limit.

“If it’s such a health hazard, why aren’t they sending them letters telling them how dangerous it is?” she asked. “Why aren’t they alerting the whole valley? Why don’t more people know about this?”

Just as the concept of gross alpha is new to residents of Lakeshore Heights, so is the reality of enforcing treatment plans to DEQ. As the only public water system in the state being treated for gross alpha, DEQ officials are watching carefully to see how the Lakeshore Heights situation unfolds. The pilot program, Gillespie said, has “worked beautifully so far.”

“Most readings are non-detectable afterward,” she added.

When the pilot program is through at the end of the year, Malkuch thinks everybody will sign on to the plan. She believes the majority is already in favor, despite the vocal opponents. Malkuch said she’s most concerned about young people who begin drinking the water now and then drink it the rest of their lives.

“At my age, it’s not as crucial for me,” she said. “It’s for the babies and young kids who are developing. Their bones and their brains are developing, and I wouldn’t want my kids to have that.”