Quality of water faulted Report finds toxins in rural areas and military bases

September 28, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Drinking water used by 99,000 Marylanders, mainly in rural communities and on military bases, is sometimes contaminated with bacteria, toxic chemicals or dirt particles, says a report released yesterday.

Up to 3.5 million more state residents, including those using the Baltimore water system, may face a similar risk because water supplies are not properly monitored, adds the report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For example, the Washington-based environmental group cited inadequate testing for lead and copper in the Baltimore system.

Throughout the nation, there is little state or federal enforcement of safety standards for drinking water, the report said, even though the Environmental Protection Agency tallied some 250,000 violations from all 50 states during 1991-1992.

"What we need are stronger rules and a tough cop on the beat," said Erik Olson, a lawyer for the council and author of the report.

Baltimore and Maryland officials took issue with the findings yesterday, saying they contain errors and exaggerate water-quality problems in the state.

But EPA officials agreed with most of the reforms proposed by the environmental group, including tougher enforcement and increased spending to help communities upgrade their water treatment systems.

Nationwide, more than 900,000 people become ill each year with flu-like water-borne illness, and as many as 900 may die, the report said.

In a widely publicized case last spring, contaminated municipal water in Milwaukee made about 370,000 people sick and 47 died.

The report said that such bacterial contamination is just one of the hazards. Millions of Americans are exposed to unsafe levels of arsenic, lead, radium and other toxic substances in their drinking water.

Moreover, the process of disinfecting water supplies with chlorine can produce hazardous byproducts, the report said. More than 10,000 cases of bladder and rectal cancer a year may be linked to drinking chlorinated water, some studies suggest.

Maryland has experienced no outbreaks of water-borne illness, said Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.

But Marylanders simply have been lucky, contends Dru Schmidt-Perkins, state director of Clean Water Action, another environmental group. The reservoirs and underground aquifers that supply drinking water "are not being protected the way they ought to be," she said.

In its report, the Natural Resources Defense Council said that 99,000 Marylanders depend on drinking water that could be considered unhealthy because of sporadic contamination. Water systems serving major portions of 10 Maryland cities and towns were cited by regulators at least once in the past two years as exceeding federal standards for contaminants: bacteria, chemicals or dirt particles.

Here are the communities, the population served by the water system and the type of contamination:

* Cumberland in Western Maryland, 35,000, dirt particles.

* La Plata in Charles County, 5,000, coliform bacteria and dirt particles.

* Crisfield in Somerset County, 4,578, excess of fluoride.

* Lonaconing in Allegany County, 4,500, dirt particles.

* Pocomoke City in Worcester County, 3,800, coliform bacteria.

4 * Mount Airy in Carroll County, 3,500, nitrates.

* Princess Anne in Somerset County, 2,700, coliform bacteria.

* Emmitsburg in Frederick County, 1,600, dirt particles.

* Lexington Park in St. Mary's County, 1,325, coliform bacteria.

* Hebron in Wicomico County, 755, nitrates.

Three military bases in the state also were mentioned. High counts of coliform bacteria turned up in a water system serving 17,000 people at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, and excessive levels of the same bacteria were found in water used by 11,000 people at Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in St. Mary's County.

And high levels of coliform were reported in a water system serving 4,200 people at the Edgewood portion of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Moreover, excess levels of contaminants showed up in water systems serving from a few dozen to a few hundred residents at more than 20 mostly rural villages, trailer parks and small housing developments.

Nationwide, more than 15,000 episodic or chronic violations of federal limits on contaminants in drinking water were reported by private and public utilities serving more than 28 million Americans, the report said. Another 10,000 violations occurred in largely unregulated water systems serving 1.4 million people in hospitals, hotels, schools and factories. Thousands more contamination incidents may have been hidden from the public because there were 217,000 violations of federal requirements to test water quality and report any problems.

Marcia Collins, spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, said that contrary to the report, the city has performed all tests required for lead and copper in the water supplied to much of the metropolitan area from three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties.

UNHEALTHY DRINKING WATER

Number of times in 1991-1992 that public water systems in these states violated federal standards for bacterial or chemical contamination of drinking water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council; state populations are from 1990 Census.

State ............ Population ........ Violations

Worst records

Washington ...... 4.9 million ............ 1,474

California ..... 29.8 million .............. 894

Texas .......... 17.0 million .............. 822

Best records

Nevada .......... 1.2 million ............... 24

Rhode Island .... 1.0 million ............... 29

Hawaii .......... 1.1 million ............... 34

Region

Maryland ........ 4.8 million ............... 68

Delaware ........ 0.7 million .............. 107

Pennsylvania ... 11.9 million .............. 459

Virginia ........ 6.2 million .............. 496

West Virginia ... 1.8 million ............... 92

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