Illinois Towns Race to Comply with U.S. Radium Limit

Deadline to Meet Standards for Radium in Drinking Water Looms

Faced with a looming crackdown on federal rules to sharply limit radium in drinking water, more than 100 water systems in Illinois are scrambling to dig new wells, install expensive treatment systems or buy water from neighboring towns.

Radium, a radioactive element that has been linked to cancer, occurs naturally in high concentrations in northeast Illinois' deep wells.

Though regulations have been ignored or loosely enforced by some local officials who oppose the standard, they are giving up the fight as a Dec. 8 compliance deadline approaches. The prospect of fines up to $50,000 plus $10,000 per day would be too much of a burden for their jurisdictions to handls.

"The City Council is really skeptical about the standard," said Bill McGrath, city administrator in Batavia, which joined a federal lawsuit that unsuccessfully sought to block enforcement of the radium rules. "But it's a mandate, and we'll comply with it."

Chicago and other communities that use Lake Michigan water have no problem with radium. Neither do most homes drawing from shallow wells. However, communities that pump water from wells 800 to 1,500 feet deep draw from high-radium sources in northeastern Illinois such as the Mt. Simon and Cambrian-Ordovician aquifers. There, uranium and other radioactive elements decay into radium that leaches into the water.

Under a U.S. EPA regulation issued in 2000, water systems nationwide, including more than 100 in Illinois serving 450,000 people, were given until December to reduce excessive radium levels. The order, along with a federal appeals court ruling, was designed to enforce a legal standard put on the books in 1976.

About 50 systems in the state are expected to blow the deadline but will be allowed to negotiate timetables, officials said.

Although local officials have downplayed the risk posed by radium, critics say the crackdown is long overdue. They argue that federal and state environmental officials have failed to protect consumers.

"Illinois officials have known for more than a quarter of a century that they have serious radium problems," said Erik Olson, who heads a safe-drinking water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "The losers in this process have been the children and others exposed to radium for so many years."

Chicago Tribune

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