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Emily Guerin | Feb 27, 2013 05:00 AM

Would you be willing to pay up to $10 per month to have your drinking water free of a suspected carcinogen? That’s the question that city councilors in Woods Cross, Utah, are asking residents to answer.

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In the late 1980s, residents of this Salt Lake City suburb learned that a chemical called tetrachloroethylene (or PCE) had leaked from a local dry cleaner into the city’s groundwater. PCE had contaminated two of the city’s wells; in one, the concentration level exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limit (called a maximum contaminant level or MCL) of 5 parts per billion. To be safe, the city shut down both wells and started pumping PCE-free groundwater from other parts of town.

By the early 2000s, the PCE plume had migrated as the city’s other wells slowly sucked the contaminant towards them. The concentration in the water being pumped up was nowhere near the MCL, but officials decided to turn off those wells, too. Now Woods Cross is down to its last PCE-free well, and city officials are worried the plume will show up there soon.

PCE is a known carcinogen in lab rats, but scientists have been unable to prove that it increases cancer risk in humans. Still, based on the rat studies, researchers estimate the risk of people developing cancer from drinking PCE-laden water at five in one million, assuming an intake of two liters of water containing 5 ppb of PCEs every day for 70 years. In California, water regulators imposed a far stricter limit for PCE concentration than the EPA, based on concerns that the chemical may be harmful at less than 5 ppb.

Most of the year, no one in Woods Cross has to worry about drinking PCE-laden water. But in summertime, when demand spikes, the city is forced to turn on other wells that pump tainted water. Historically, that water was blended with water from the clean well. But recently city officials became concerned that the plume was being sucked towards the last clean well, meaning all city water would have some trace of the chemical all of the time.

Because the EPA hasn’t formally determined who is at fault for the pollution, the agency isn’t paying for a clean up. The likely culprit is underground storage tanks at a dry cleaning company, now run by new owners who aren’t responsible for the PCE problem. The former owners are unlikely to have enough money to fund a clean-up even if compelled to by a court. Also, two city officials say the EPA has told them if they want to clean up their water, they’re on their own.

So in 2011, the city decided to take on the PCE problem itself. Officials hired an engineering firm to explore options and settled on two possibilities: do nothing, or spend $4 million on a carbon filtration system (plus $80,000 a year in operational costs) to remove all PCEs from drinking water, at a cost of $9-10 dollars a month per household.

To help them decide, the city council surveyed residents. “What level of PCE can you live with? Zero, or are you willing to live below the MCL?” said Woods Cross City Administrator Gary Uresk in an interview.

Woods Cross residents are now faced with a decision few people get to make. Rarely are we asked what level of air or water contamination we are comfortable living with, and how much we’d be willing to pay to make it all go away. The people of Woods Cross have to decide what is an acceptable level of risk, and that answer varies from person to person. But many don't seem to care -- in a town of nearly 10,000, only 27 people responded to the city survey after it was rolled out last year, and just forty showed up at a June 2012 open house. “It shocked me,” Uresk said. “I really thought when people saw the word PCE and what it can do, they’d come out of the woodwork.”

The city council wasn’t comfortable implementing such a steep rate hike on residents’ water bills without more input, so next month they’re scheduling another series of open houses and sending out more mailers. They might even go door-to-door, or put the item on the November ballot.

Recently, a small flurry of newspaper articles about the issue has raised interest, and at the February 5 city council meeting a handful of residents questioned the council on the issue for about an hour. For some speakers, the choice was clear.

“It’s a decision of, do you want clean water or do you want to drink a contaminated source? And to me it’s a no-brainer on this,” resident Julie Checketts told the council. But others wondered why Woods Cross residents should spend so much to treat water whose PCE concentration would likely be below the EPA’s legal limit -- if it became contaminated at all.

“We want to do what the residents want done, whatever that is,” said Mayor Kent Parry, but personally he’s not too concerned as long as the PCE concentration stays below or at 5 ppb.

“That’s a pretty minimal risk in my opinion. But I’m not going to downplay that; for some people that’s not a risk they’re willing to take.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user D.H. Parks

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