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Utah cities grapple with tainted well water

Environment » Woods Cross, North Salt Lake grapple with PCE in water wells.

First Published Jan 22 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated May 05 2013 11:33 pm

Dry cleaning solvent has tainted drinking water wells in Woods Cross and North Salt Lake one by one.

Now there’s just one contamination-free source in Woods Cross for meeting the needs of city water customers, and that’s making city leaders uncomfortable.

At a glance

What is PCE?

P Tetrachloroethylene, often called PCE or PERC, is a solvent commonly used by dry cleaners, military installations and auto shops. It is colorless and evaporates easily. People exposed over long periods of time are thought to be at higher risk of cancer and of liver and kidney problems. You can be exposed by breathing it, drinking it or absorbing it through the skin.

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On Tuesday, city council members decided to revive efforts to draw residents into the decision-making. They want to know if water users prefer to live with low levels of contamination or add $9 to their monthly water bills to filter out the solvent.

"The more we can get people aware of it and involved with it, the better," said Mayor Kent Parry.

North Salt Lake shut down two wells serving its 4,800 customers, and two more are thought to be at risk because they are within a half mile of the contaminated wells. Current water rates will cover the estimated $250,000 cost of filtering the PCE out of the water supplies and engineers are designing the fix, said City Manager Barry Edwards.

"If somebody says there is contamination in the water," he said, "our goal is to get it cleaned up."

Everyone’s known about the PCE plume for years. Tetrachloroethylene, as it’s formally called, is thought to have leached into the underground water system from dry cleaners — a problem not just in Woods Cross and neighboring North Salt Lake but at thousands of other locations nationwide.

"Five Points PCE Plume" in Woods Cross landed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund list in 2007. One of 22 active sites on Utah’s list, it is still being studied for cleanup options.

Tony Howes, an environmental scientist who oversees the investigation for the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation, said monitoring wells have been installed to get a handle on the groundwater contamination. His agency hopes to have a cleanup plan in about a year.

"Once PCE is in the water, it’s pretty hard to get out," he said, noting the plume is bigger than the one-mile length originally thought.

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The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level for PCE at 5 parts per billion. People who drink water with higher concentrations can, over many years, develop liver problems and an increased risk of getting cancer, according to the EPA.

So far, neither Woods Cross nor North Salt Lake have seen levels that high.

In Woods Cross, leaders estimate it will cost $4 million to treat the community’s water, including the four wells that are currently offline because of traces of PCE.

Both Woods Cross and North Salt Lake would like some help from the Superfund, but they’ve gotten the message that the nation’s "polluter pays" fund is bust.

Jonathan Scott, spokesman for the Washington, D.C., environmental group, Clean Water Action, noted that PCE is a problem for virtually every community that’s had a dry cleaner, a military installation or an auto shop that used the cleaning solvent, a chemical so widespread, it earned a nickname, "PERC."

Meanwhile, Congress let the funding source for toxic cleanups lapse in 2002. Contaminated communities now bear the burden of dealing with PCE-contaminated water on their own. "They’re the victims," Scott said, pointing to the unfairness. "So why should they have to pay twice?"

Plus, the state drinking water office also lacks funds.

Woods Cross City Manager Gary Uresk said the decision for the more than 2,000 ratepayers in the city is simple:

"Would they rather pay the $9 a month to get the PCE out of the water, or would they rather have PCE in the water that is below the harmful level?"

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