Discontent roils over radium in well water

County won't extend public service lines

June 18, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The dozen or so plotters huddle in a circle of wicker chairs at William DeLawder's Pasadena home, planning their next move. An engineer, a nurse, a lawyer, they are united on this drizzly night by fear and anger about the radium that is seeping into wells across northern Anne Arundel County.

They are skeptical of the county's assurances that the risk of getting cancer by drinking radium-tainted water is low, and that water-treatment systems are effective at removing the naturally occurring, radioactive metal.

Instead, those gathered in the glass-enclosed sunroom see only one answer: They want the county to make good on past promises by extending public water service further east along Mountain Road and into the Lake Shore area where they live. They're willing to pay for it - and they're intent on pushing officials to act accordingly.

"We have a right to have safe water," declares Linda Pogue, as her Sylvan View neighbors nod in agreement.

But the county has no plans to extend public water the mile or so to their neighborhood, fearing it could set off a building boom on the peninsula. That rationale resonates among some residents who think property along Mountain Road is already too built up.

The coming debate, some say, could expose deep differences of opinion on the peninsula.

"Health vs. development - I don't know what the answer is," said Carolyn Roeding, president of the Greater Pasadena Council, an umbrella group of 40 homeowners associations. "But I can tell you it will be another fight, because it will open the door to development."

It's a fight county health officials say is unnecessary. For $64, residents can have their wells tested by calling the department. If radium levels exceed standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, residents can buy purification systems for $500 to $1,000.

Thomas Gruver, who runs the county's private-well program, said the two standard treatment methods - ion exchange and reverse osmosis - "are both extremely effective at removal of radium."

One expert, Robert Morris of the Tufts University School of Medicine in Medford, Mass., said the county's approach appears to be sound. While he does not fault those who worry about radium - prolonged exposure in high doses can cause bone cancer, after all - he said no one should panic.

"If these [radium] levels are somewhat above the EPA standard, that's not something that should make people shut down their wells and start drinking Evian," said Morris, an associate professor of community health.

Comments like that are not likely to assuage DeLawder and company. At their meeting last week, the group focused on how to drum up support for public water, which three-quarters of the county's 475,000 residents receive.

They discussed joining with other community groups, distributing fliers and holding a large public meeting in August or September.

Doris Stevens, an activist from Crownsville, said she had spoken to Jan Schlichtmann, the attorney portrayed by John Travolta in the movie "A Civil Action," about his fierce legal battle with a chemical company accused of polluting.

Schlichtmann is "very interested" in the radium problem, Stevens said, though it was not clear on what grounds a lawsuit might be filed.

"It will be the biggest thing that ever happened in Anne Arundel County," she said.

News of high radium levels in North County wells surfaced about two years ago. Alarmed by a 1996 report by the Maryland Cancer Consortium, a coalition of cancer experts, that said Anne Arundel had high rates of lung, breast, skin, colon and cervical cancer deaths, authorities began testing well water across the county for signs of pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds and radon.

To their surprise, radium readings came back high, beginning along U.S. 50 and heading north. According to the EPA, 15 picocuries per liter is the maximum safe level based on something called a gross alpha reading, which measures radium isotopes 224, 226 and 228. Some wells in Pasadena turned up readings near 600 picocuries, and about two-thirds of all wells tested in Pasadena exceeded safe limits. High readings were also found in Severn, Millersville, Crownsville and Severna Park.

The likely culprit, according to Gruver, is the highly acidic groundwater, which easily dissolves radium.

Starting in June 1998, the county required testing of all new wells and replacement wells. As a precaution, the Department of Public Works stopped using four wells to feed the public water supply.

But the county felt its message was not being sufficiently heard, so in March it sent letters to 20,000 homes advising owners to test existing wells.

Still, county officials stress there is no public health emergency. The EPA says just one fatality likely would result if, every day for 50 years, 10,000 people drank 2 liters of water containing the maximum radium level deemed acceptable.

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