The state is suggesting public water as a possible long-term solution for Pasadena residents who have radium in their well water - renewing the debate over whether connecting the peninsula to public water would bring unwanted development.
In a letter to a member of Citizens Against Radium Poisoning, Jane T. Nishida, state secretary of the environment, wrote that the Maryland Department of the Environment is committed to working with the county to evaluate the costs and benefits of providing public water to the Pasadena peninsula.
"Although the costs of public water are roughly estimated to be more than two to three times the cost for a well and treatment or drilling a deeper well, we believe that public water is a possible long-term solution for residents in your community," Nishida wrote late last month to Linda Pogue, the group's spokeswoman.
Members of the group, a coalition of residents, were ecstatic.
"How do you spell `hooray'?" said William DeLawder, the group's founder.
The statement rejuvenates the hopes of those fighting for public water, but Pasadena residents have long been divided over whether public water should be extended down the peninsula from where it ends at Lake Shore Plaza - which would cost millions. Supporters say it's the ideal solution to radium in well water, while opponents fear public water would draw more development and believe water treatment systems on private wells are sufficient.
"I think [the letter] is the opening bell on a very long, protracted fight by those who want it and those who don't," said Lester Ettlinger, chairman of the Pasadena Citizens Task Force on Radium in Well Water.
County Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy said yesterday that she was "amazed" at MDE's response. She said elected officials are taking steps to make well water treatment systems, which can cost from $500 to $1,500, affordable. She pointed out a proposal by Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican, that would help residents buy radium filtration systems and has been approved as part of the state budget.
Murphy said she is waiting for the residents' task force to submit its study and recommendation to her this summer before she decides how to pursue the issue of radium, a naturally occurring carcinogen associated with bone tumors.
"Let's not push the panic button until we know what we're dealing with," she said.
County Fire Division Chief John M. Scholz, acting county spokesman, said the Department of Public Works is working closely with residents to assess their needs and determine how they want to approach the problem.
"The first step is to have citizen involvement," he said yesterday. "That's what [County Executive Janet S. Owens] anxiously awaits."
Health officials have maintained that elevated levels of radium - first detected in 1997 and 1998 in wells in Crownsville, Millersville, Pasadena, Severn and Severna Park - are not a health emergency and that water treatment systems can reduce radium to a safe level.
Citizens Against Radium Poisoning has been pushing for public water, circulating petitions last fall to support its cause and lobbying elected officials.
"Why shouldn't we have the convenience of having public water down here?" DeLawder asked. "Sure it costs, but after all, we should get more than a middle lane on Mountain Road for our tax money."
But in October, Ron Hartman, the public works fiscal services manager, told the Greater Pasadena Council that the area is not on the county's master plan for public water. If public water were extended, Hartman estimated that property owners would have to pay $23,000 to connect to it, whether they want to or not.
However, Richard McIntire, a MDE spokesman, said that while water treatment systems are effective, public water would eliminate the problem of radium in well water. He said the state has loan programs that could assist in development or improvement of local jurisdictions.
"Being on public water is the solution," he said. "The questions come down to the applicability and the feasibility and the cost."
To James Bilenki, co-chairman of the Mountain Road Peninsula Preservation Committee, part of that cost would be the development that he fears will come on the heels of public water. For the past five years, he has been fighting to reduce growth on the peninsula out of concern that it would harm the environment.
"When you have these real estate people and their lawyers, as soon as city water comes down here, their lawyers are going to be down in Annapolis lobbying the state delegates to open up this area," he said. "This is a nice area down here, and we don't want to see it destroyed by development."
But now that Bilenki is a member of the Pasadena residents' task force, he said he is committed to looking at both sides of the issue and has not decided which is the best solution.
"If the consensus is that city water is the only way to go, then we should all get on board and get our delegates in Annapolis to listen to what we have to say," he said. "Whatever is going to be best for the residents down there, that's what we want to do."