Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

Water options discussed at town meeting

The Town of Whitehall hosted a public informational meeting Monday night with members of the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and NCI Engineering out of Great Falls. The purpose of the forum was to give residents updates and information about the uranium issue with the drinking water.

“The Town of Whitehall engaged the firm to help with the uranium problem and what we are headed for, or hope to head for, is to find an alternate water source; another well that doesn’t have uranium in it. We strongly believe that is a preferred alternative as opposed to building a treatment plant,” Sr. Project Manager at NCI Engineering Lyle Meeks said.

Meeks added there are a lot of potential problems that can arise from building a treatment plant such as; the town would be stuck with it forever, the cost to operate and maintain the plant, and also what to do with the concentrated uranium that is left from the plant.

Diane Jordan Chemical/Radiological Rule Manager at DEQ gave a condensed briefing on the ChemRad rule, which was revised in 2000 and came into effect in 2003.

“At that time the MCL for uranium was set at 30 mg/L (micrograms per liter). The MCL is the maximum contaminant level the EPA feels is safe to drink up to. At extremes over they have done studies over a lifetime of 70 years, if you drink two liters per day with the exceedance of the MCL you may develop symptoms of kidney problems or have a one in 10,000 chance of developing cancer from that source,” Jordan said.

John Dilliard the Public Water Supply Bureau Chief for DEQ gave a short backstory on how the Town of Whitehall got where it is today.

“In the early 2000’s the EPA changed the regulations to add uranium to the radiological rule. At that time they looked at historical data, what is out there, what has the radiological impact been in the past, there were no issues based on that with the water in Whitehall.

“In the regulations, because of that, that was used to be the first initial monitoring period. Since everything was under the MCL, the town had a nine-year sampling cycle. The first period ended in 2008, and the second ended last year. When Whitehall sampled for this nine-year cycle that is what keyed it, that is when we saw the elevated levels. Since that time the DEQ has been having the town sample quarterly. This way we are not seeing laboratory errors, or it is transient. Because of that consistency we are moving with Whitehall to find a solution,” Dilliard said.

He went on to state one of the things everybody has of fear of is when they hear uranium, they think they at being irradiated.

“Uranium, at least the natural uranium, which we are dealing with here, has very little radiation. The main concern is the toxicity of the chemical and it’s affect of the kidney’s and the body, “Dillard said

A resident of Whitehall at the meeting asked about in home treatment devices and whether they are inappropriate/appropriate for the uranium issue. Dilliard said for in home treatment, one of the effective mechanisms is called a reverse osmosis system, and usually be found at a hardware store to be put on the point of use. It will attach to one point in a house and that is where people would get their water.

Jordan discussed ion exchange water treatment. She said the problem with both of those systems is they are costly, and the disposal costs are high. Jordan added those are options, and she knows some of the bottled water companies offer those, and will maintain them.

Meeks said one thing he would like to clarify the community and the DEQ signed an agreement to move forward together to solve the problem. In that agreement there is a 60-day period for the parties to agree on a schedule for the long-term improvement, adding they are not going to solve the problem in 60 days. Meeks said the role of NCI is to be the problem solvers.

Fess Foster, a consulting Geologist for the town, said step one is to look at all the data that is already available. He said there is a lot of data out there on existing water wells.

Foster added common sense is to gather all of that data, put together in a GIS (geographic information system.

“Based on the data, it will tell us where to do the sampling. Over time, once all this data has been put together, hopefully it will identify where to put in a replacement well and see if we can avoid the cost of a water treatment facility here,” Foster said.


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