Water Scare Tactics

What's The Half-Life Of Tucson Water's Half-Truths?

IS OUR DRINKING water radioactive? It's a fair question to ask, following the panic whipped up in the last week by Tucson Water and the majority of the City Council. Tucson Water dropped quite a nuclear bomb last week at an emergency meeting of the City Council, announcing that 30 to 40 percent of our groundwater wells may have to be shut down due to radon contamination. In the mushroom cloud of confusion that has followed, we've learned Tucson Water stands ready to deliver a blend of CAP and groundwater that ensures we're safe from radon gas.

But the state officials in charge of radon monitoring say the gas probably isn't a problem in our homes. And if it is, it's percolating up through the soil, not through the water.

That hasn't stopped Tucson Water from creating a bogus crisis -- with Mayor George Miller and the Council playing along.

A little background: radon is a commonly occurring gas that creeps from beneath the earth's crust as a natural part of radioactive decay. It's got a very brief half-life once it enters the atmosphere, decaying in about four days.

Radon can cause lung cancer when it gets trapped and builds up in homes, if you're unlucky enough to breathe it for a couple of decades. It's a significant problem in some states, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, where homes have basements and are sealed against harsh weather, preventing the gas from escaping.

Radon gas can also get trapped in groundwater, although it quickly bubbles out once the water is exposed to air. It is possible for radon to escape from water and add to the gas trapped in your home, but on average, water-borne radon is responsible for less than 5 percent of radon in homes.

"It's a health concern with a simple solution," says John Stewart, coordinator for the state radon program at the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency. "Pick up a test kit, test the air in your home, and if you don't have a problem with radon in air levels, then it's pretty darn certain you don't have a problem with radon in water. It's pretty basic."

So why is Tucson Water Director David Modeer telling the Council -- in an emergency meeting, no less -- that we have to shut down a third of our groundwater wells?

For the last several years, the EPA has been researching the dangers of radon. The federal agency is likely to soon propose a new regulation requiring water companies to treat water if it has more than 300 picocuries of radon per liter.

Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Tucson's groundwater wells exceed that limit, although the level likely drops by the time the water reaches customers, because the gas has had an opportunity to bubble out of the water in reservoirs.

In focusing on a 300-picocurie maximum, Modeer is ignoring a proposed alternative regulation, which would allow as much as 4,000 picocuries, which would affect -- at most -- a handful of Tucson's wells.

This alternative course was recommended quite clearly last year by Assistant City Manager John Nachbar, who was then acting head of Tucson Water, in a memo to Councilwoman Janet Marcus.

"An 'alternate MCL (maximum contaminate level) standard' would allow individual states to develop programs which control the overall risk of radon from both soil gas and drinking water," Nachbar explained. "The idea would be to develop multimedia radon mitigation programs that could achieve the same or greater health benefits, reducing exposure of radon at lower costs than just dealing with water alone."

So, as long as Tucson Water participates in a mediation program to alert people to the dangers of radon gas -- which shouldn't be that hard, since those dangers are largely non-existent in our community -- the utility won't need to shut down the wells.

Stewart says he's been contacted by staffers in the Department of Environmental Quality's water-quality division, who have been exploring the creation of such a mediation program, which could well be developed before the regulation goes into effect in the next few years. The program could involve testing homes, running an educational campaign about the dangers of radon gas, and -- horror of horrors in this town -- requiring homebuilders to put plastic sheets under foundations to prevent radon from leaking into homes.

Tucson Water officials, City Council members and the editorial staffs of both dailies have argued that the city needs to err on the side of safety by adhering to the lower standard. But how dangerous is radon in the water?

"Radon in water, up until the very recent happenings in Tucson, has not typically been a strong concern as a source for health risk," says Stewart. "No one has ever said conclusively that there's absolutely, 100 percent no health risk from drinking water with radon suspended in it, but they've come very close to saying that. The concern was through inhalation."

And the risk from water is minuscule. "It takes a lot of radon in the water to off-gas into the air to the extent that it will increase the radon level in the home," adds Stewart.

But Mitch Basefsky, spokesman for Tucson Water, says the utility has no choice but to go with the lower level. He says a mitigation program is just too difficult to undertake.

"It doesn't seem to us that the multimedia mitigation program is equitable at all or doable," Basefsky says. "It doesn't make sense. How can you be protective of public health by mitigating a certain percentage of homes in the community when all the other homes in the community might or might not be impacted?"

But, given the fact that radon from water is responsible for about 5 percent of the radon gas in homes, Basefsky concedes that even adhering to the lower standard won't safeguard public health.

"Neither regulation fixes the problem," Basefsky says. "The thing that would fix the problem is if it came down to mandatory regulation over air quality in homes and (people) were required to install mitigation in every home that's impacted by high radon levels. The only way you're going to mitigate radon in air is doing air-quality things, not water-quality things. The water utility's perspective is that it's not really realistic to expect the water departments to now become controllers of indoor air quality."

Nonetheless, although it won't appreciably alter radon levels in homes, Tucson Water is sticking by its plan to shut down wells, even if it means water rationing next summer.

"Maybe we have one summer of hardship and in the meantime, we have protected people's health," Basefsky says. "We've avoided exposing people to radon in their water for a year."

Councilman Jerry Anderson, who was the only member of the Council to oppose the plan to shut down the wells, says the panic is "completely nonsense." He points out that Tucson Water has been aware of the radon issue for years.

"Why wasn't it scheduled for an agenda item earlier this year and discussed?" asks Anderson. "Why did they wait until two or three weeks before the primary election to bring this up and to start waving the red flags? I thought it was totally inappropriate and sure smelled like playing politics. If you're going to play this game, you better have your facts together, and it's obvious they don't. I thought it was really ill-conceived, inappropriate, irresponsible and not fair to the public, which is caught in this political game dealing with water issues."

Much has been made of a section of the Water Consumer Protection Act which forbids delivery of water from polluted sources. But, by definition in the statute, that means not violating federal or state standards -- which the city would easily avoid simply by adhering to the alternative regulation.

Keep in mind that we haven't even seen the new regulation yet. We've only seen drafts of the proposed rule. When an official proposal is ready, perhaps in the next few weeks, it will be published in the Federal Register -- which means affected parties will have a full year to comment on it. After that, there's another two to three years to come into compliance, meaning the new standard wouldn't even be in place until 2003.

"The sense of urgency that seems to be conveyed in Tucson in the last week surpasses anything resembling a sense of urgency that has been conveyed to our office," says Stewart.

So why is Tucson Water moving with such haste? We'd wager it's because they want to create confusion and panic among the voters in hopes of (a) damaging Molly McKasson's campaign in the September 7 Democratic primary, and (b) defeating the new water proposition in November.

It certainly isn't because they want to help people understand the potential danger of radon gas. If that were the case, Tucson Water would be talking to the Council about beginning an education campaign to alert people to the danger of radon in the air in their homes, not in their water.

That seemed to be something that Nachbar understood back in February 1998, when he wrote: "It is almost certain that with such a low primary standard, the City would seek to show compliance through the 'alternate MCL standard,' since it would provide greater health benefits at lower costs to the community."

Instead of pursuing "greater health benefits," however, the utility is engaging in a disinformation campaign as part of its ongoing propaganda effort.

Bottom line: Dave Modeer and George Miller can shut down all the wells they want, but they're only going to reduce the amount of radon in homes by about 5 percent, tops. Does that make you feel safer?

Tucson Water officials, working in concert with the Council majority, is obfuscating the radon issue to suit a political end: the return of CAP water to our homes.