Well study links water to growth

Report on radium sees development if public supply starts

Wide testing sought

Task force members disavow findings as `superficial'

October 18, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | By Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

A report to be released today on a cancer-causing agent in Pasadena well water concludes that taking public water to the peninsula would spawn increased development, but members of a task force formed to study the issue have disavowed its findings.

The 70-page report, written by environmental risk consultant Lester A. Ettlinger, also calls for wells countywide to be tested for radium and asks for a geological survey to determine the extent of radium contamination in Pasadena, according to those familiar with the report.

Former members of the Pasadena Citizens' Task Force on Radium said the report presents a "superficial and misleading analysis" of the problem, and they are upset that their recommendations were not included in the final report.

The much-anticipated report is to help residents find solutions to elevated levels of radium detected in 1997 and 1998 in wells in Crownsville, Millersville, Pasadena, Severn and Severna Park.

More than half of the 514 wells sampled exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's maximum of 15 picocuries per liter, according to the county Health Department.

Radium, a naturally occurring radioactive metal, is a carcinogen associated with bone tumors.

The task force was created by County Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, who appointed Ettlinger as chairman.

The group met 10 times from January to May, but Ettlinger quit as chairman over what he called a failure by members to be objective.

The group was split between those who wanted public water and those who didn't, he said, so he wrote the report himself.

Former members, some of whom resigned before Ettlinger quit, disputed his account, saying the group's strength was its differing views. They said he would not allow task force members to review the report or contribute to its content until after its presentation to Murphy.

"It's his report, period. It's not the task force's report," said former task force member William DeLawder, who also is founder of the pro-public water group Citizens Against Radium Poisoning. "It does not paint a true picture."

Ettlinger, a nuclear engineer and former Johns Hopkins University physics professor, dismisses such accusations. He said the report is a factual - not political - analysis of the problem, and that former members are attacking his work because it does not advocate connecting the Pasadena peninsula to public water.

"Most of the panel wanted public water, and my sense is that they didn't want some of this information out there publicly," he said.

Ettlinger added that the report consists of information from state, local and national agencies and has been extensively reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, the U.S. Geological Survey, the EPA and others.

Of his detractors, Ettlinger said: "They're just complainers."

One suggested solution is to require deeper wells to bypass the radium field. Ettlinger said the recommendations include asking the state Environment Department to analyze characteristics of ground far below the surface before requiring property owners to drill deeper wells.

The report calls for requiring filters for wells with high levels of radium because providing public water to peninsula homeowners would take at least five years.

It also recommends that zoning regulations be changed if residents decide they want public water, arguing that its arrival would lead to increased development on the peninsula.

The report details health risks associated with radium and breaks down costs of alternatives to well water, including bottled water, water treatment filters, drilling deeper wells and expansion of public water, Ettlinger said.

Four former task force members who were invited by Ettlinger to review the report last month said in a letter to Murphy that the report has several flaws.

They said the report does not address whether treatment systems are capable of reducing radium below the EPA's maximum level of 15 picocuries per liter, and said it should have mentioned that no treatment system manufacturer guarantees that radium would be reduced to the standard. It also failed to compare costs for bottled water, treatment systems and public water on an "apples to apples" basis, said the letter, signed by former task force members Alison Asti, Anthony Mantione, Paula Tibert and DeLawder.

It is misleading, they wrote, to suggest that a cost payable over 30 years for public water should be compared with a one-time cost for a treatment system without including repair, replacement and maintenance costs for the period.

Requiring property owners to drill deeper wells is a recommendation that was "never discussed" by the task force, the members wrote, arguing that it would pose an unfair economic burden on residents and is based on "unsubstantiated scientific theory that deeper wells COULD be free of radium."

The former members also said the idea of a county-maintained "community well system" - similar to one used in Gibson Island - should have been explored.

They disagreed with the finding that public water would lead to more development, arguing that county planners previously told the group that expansion of sewer lines, and not water, more often leads to growth.

In the end, the members' letter concluded that the report "makes no productive recommendations."

After an amicable meeting last month, Ettlinger and the four former members agreed to work together on altering the report to address the member's perceived shortcomings. But the members said Ettlinger wanted to dictate how changes would be made and that they could not work with him.

Asti, writing for the group, and Ettlinger exchanged testy e-mails.

Ettlinger, who assembled the panel, said its work suffered because members were biased toward justifying their desire for public water. "You have a citizens group deciding what are facts and what aren't," he said. "Citizens can express opinions, but when something is black and they say it is white, where do you go from there?"

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