Times Argus, The (Montpelier-Barre, VT)
July 26, 2003

Marshfield's uranium problems are worsening

By PATRICK JOY Staff Writer MARSHFIELD - Uranium contamination in the village's water system has spread to the water treatment plant, compounding an already expensive problem and worrying the village trustees.

"The lagoons are like giant sponges," said trustee Homer Peake. "The levels in there are about three times what they should be. Now, we can't dispose of the sludge the way we used to. Before, the sludge used to get picked up by special trucks and injected into farmers' fields, but now, we'll have to do something else with it."

Peake said the town might be able to ship the sludge to a lined landfill, but might have to truck it out of state. Either way, the cost will be substantial.

The town has been struggling since March to find a solution to the contamination problem, which surfaced when the village switched over to a new well in October of 2001. A series of bumbles by the state's Agency of Natural Resources delayed testing of the new well, which should have happened soon after the state established uranium standards in January of 2002. Because of the delay, tests were not begun until December, and results showing elevated levels of the radioactive mineral did not come back until March of 2003, some 18 months after villagers began drinking the water. The town began offering bottled water at that point, as exposure to unsafe levels of uranium can cause kidney damage and heighten long-term risks for cancer, according to public health officials.

Approximately 140 residents rely on the village water supply.

The costs connected with shipping the contaminated sludge have also limited filtration options, Peake said.

"(The cost of shipping sludge) eliminates the option of ... putting a filter in the ground at the well site," said Peake, who explained that water would now have to be treated after it extraction from the ground.

Peake said the village has settled on a two-part filtration system that will draw the uranium out of the drinking water and concentrate it. That concentrate will then be shipped out of state either by truck or, better, through the normal flow of radioactive waste from hospitals.

The exact cost of purchasing, installing and maintaining the filters is not yet known, but initial estimates several months ago for such a system put the cost at around $30,000.

Peake said he has been encouraged by the reaction of villagers.

"People are being very patient and that's a good sign," he said. "They understand that there are procedures and guidelines that we have to follow."

That patience has extended for close to a decade, as Marshfield village has struggled to find a reliable water source since bacteria were found in its spring-fed supply in the early '90s. That finding prompted the digging of a new well, which the town completed in '95.

In a meeting in April, Jay Rutherford of the Water Supply Division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that the town's well was first tested for a variety of contaminants when it was completed in 1995. Those tests showed uranium present at 79 micrograms per liter, nearly four times the current state standard of 20 micrograms per liter. In 1995, however, no state or federal standard for uranium existed, and the well was approved by the state. It did not go on line until October of 2001, when the rest of the distribution system was finished.

In January of 2002, three months after the town began using the new well, the state adopted the uranium standard of 20 micrograms per liter. Marshfield already had levels on file that far exceeded that number, but because those records were then more than five years old, Rutherford said, they went unnoticed. In addition, an error in the state computer system showed the town as still using its old spring-fed water system. Because of the confusion, Rutherford said, the state did not ask for uranium re-testing of the new well until last December. That test reconfirmed dangerous levels of uranium, and a subsequent test in February also showed levels more than three times higher than the state standard.

State toxicologist Bill Bress said that while exposure to uranium does raise long-term cancer risks, no one has ever been shown to have developed cancer from drinking uranium-contaminated water. The greater risk, he said, is short-term kidney damage, which has been seen in studies in Canada and Finland. In the more recent Finnish study, subjects began suffering kidney damage when uranium levels exceeded 300 micrograms per liter. Marshfield's level is well below that, Bress said, but the risk remains because children, elderly residents and those who are chronically ill may be more sensitive than others.