Some rural Utahns' water bills will rise steeply because of new Environmental Protection Agency rules requiring regulation of more pollutants in drinking water, predicts a state official.
And, adds Ken Bousfield, compliance program manager for the Utah Bureau of Drinking Water Sanitation, residents may get little or no health benefit in return."Quite frankly, I don't know how we're going to handle it. I don't know how the utilities will pay for the analyses. I suppose the water rates might rise," he said.
Bousfield was commenting on EPA rules that went into effect nationwide on Monday. They require regulating 27 contaminants in drinking water for which limits were not set earlier.
"There will be a significant impact to the state as well as to the communities that supply drinking water to their residents. The biggest impact will be in monitoring," he said.
Monitoring is carried out on all chemical contaminants that the EPA requires to be checked. With the new set of chemicals listed Monday, the number required to be studied nearly doubles.
However, Utah already required monitoring some of the new chemicals - but only for drinking water systems serving at least 10,000 people. For example, of 12 volatile synthetic organic chemicals listed Monday by the national agency, "we've only tested for six of those 12 in the large communities," he said.
"We find - interestingly enough - nothing detected in each of those."
Another category listed Monday covers 18 synthetic organic chemicals. "In that 18, there are four different pesticides (about which) we do have some surface water data," Bousfield said.
Pesticides are most likely to be found in surface water. Counting only the number of drinking water sources for Utahns, only 3 percent of them use surface water, such as reservoirs. But because these impoundments serve many more people than isolated springs, they account to 28 percent of the volume of water consumed.
"For most of the sources we have not collected pesticide data," Bousfield said.
For reservoirs located in areas that the state considers most vulnerable to this kind of pollution, the four pesticides were checked. "We have found occurrences of these pesticides, but they have been below the drinking water standard, even the new standard."
Another group of chemicals in the new list are eight inorganic chemicals. "We have routinely tested, for all community systems, six of the eight," Bousfield said.
"With a couple of rare exceptions, we are well below the drinking water standard." The chemicals have been checked for 30 to 40 years. If a hazardous level shows up, the state requires action, such as switching to a new source of water.
Bousfield said two new chemicals not checked previously are nitrate and asbestos. Most likely, little difficulty will be experienced with nitrate, he said.
Asbestos may be another story, however. Some drinking water distribution systems use asbestos-cement pipe.
The asbestos was used in "just something that was a pipe product," he said. It was manufactured by an asbestos company that went out of business because of litigation over asbestos in building products, notably home insulation.
Asbestos was used commonly for decades for insulation and pipe-wrappings before it was discovered that small asbestos fibers, if inhaled, could cause cancer.
Water utilities will be responsible for all the testing, while state officials are charged with making sure they carry it out and take proper actions if needed.
"They (local utilities) collect the samples," Bousfield said. "Those samples will go to certified labs." The labs send the results to the state.
"We received nearly 73,000 drinking water analyses last year alone for various parameters," he said. The new rules will require around a 30 percent increase, according to his calculations.
Several years ago the state studied the costs of increased regulation of volatile organic chemicals alone, one of the categories covered by the rules announced Monday. The state did a "best case/worst case" study.
For monitoring alone, and just for these chemicals, increased costs would range from one to three cents a month per connection for Salt Lake City water customers. For customers serviced by small water systems, the best-case fee increase was $6.25 monthly and the worst, $25 per month.
"Now this rule is significantly larger" than the scope covered by the study.
"I suspect, because of the cost, there'll be some utilities that will just refuse to sample," Bousfield said.
If that happens, his office will have to use force.
"You have to start the paper trail, send the notice of violation, send the administrative order, the attorney general referral, the state visit . . . That just takes resources, which we don't have."
So in Bousfield's view, the EPA will force water companies into carrying out monitoring they can't afford, and the state into beefing up enforcement using money and personnel it doesn't have yet.
The EPA regulations released Monday brings the number of pollutants that must be checked in drinking water supplies to 60. The 27 newly-regulated chemicals include common agricultural pesticides and runoff pollution like nitrate. Nationally, EPA officials say the new regulations will cost the country about $88 million for monitoring and decontamination.
EPA officials estimate that 3,300 drinking water systems will need to make major expenditures, which could raise water bills for the average household from $10 to $800 per year, with the biggest increases occurring in smaller systems.