There's something in the water in the tiny resort town of Alta, and customers there may have to front hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next few years to get it out.
The contaminant, the element antimony, has never sickened humans and doesn't affect aquatic life. However, a 1970 study showed a high dose of the contaminant decreased the life span of laboratory rats by a few months.
The rat dosage was divided 1,000 times by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which now requires six parts of antimony or less in all public water systems. In Alta, there are about 13 parts in every million parts of water.
Beginning in July, Alta customers will have to pay 25 percent more for water if a proposal to increase water rates goes through. The extra $19,000 generated by the increase will be added to a grant of $450,000 from the state to pay for engineering studies focused on reducing antimony levels.
Municipal customers receiving 96,000 gallons of water per month would have to increase payment from $39.40 to $49.25. Hotels, which use many times that much water, would also be charged more.
Alta has a permanent population of fewer than 400 residents, but its hotels host thousands of ski visitors annually.
The study to find the least expensive way to rid water of antimony will be complete in about a month, town officials said. Alta will then have to fund the solution, regardless of its cost. That figure could reach into the millions, said town clerk Kate Black.
"Tourists are not affected whatsoever," Black said. "We're most interested in protecting long-term residents, especially children."
Alta gets water from the Bay City Tunnel, an old mine shaft near the Emma Mine. The water is technically owned by the Salt Lake and Sandy Metro Water District, but Alta treats and distributes it.
Since the early '90s, Alta has been given exemptions concerning the antimony. However, the ski resort city has run out of legal options. It is now operating under a variance but must fix the problem by 2010, said Utah Division of Drinking Water Director Walt Baker.
In 1996, Utah toxicologist Steven Packham found that antimony concentrations in Alta water are negligible. Alta presented the findings to the EPA, but the federal agency refused to change its policy. It has also refused to provide funding to help solve the problem.
"Over 99 percent of the safety margin provided by the EPA standard is retained despite the inability of the communities' current water systems to technically meet the current (standards)," the study reads.
A separate California study found that antimony was safe in concentrations almost twice as high as those found in Alta.
Regardless, Denver-based EPA water toxicologist Bob Benson said the antimony science used by his agency is the best available.
"I would say it's not a particularly good study, but the only one suitable," he said. "There's not a lot of incentive to do additional research. (Antimony) occurs only rarely in water supplies."
The EPA acts under the federal Clean Water Act and can't ignore the rules for situations such as Alta's, Benson said. If new research were done on antimony using EPA standards, the agency would be willing to take it into account, he said.
"If I had a research budget, I would try to do a more realistic study," he said.
Mayor Tom Pollard feels the science concerning antimony is inconclusive but wants to do all he can to meet the EPA standards. Residents and visitors have not been at risk, he said, but the town needs to stay in compliance. Raising water rates would prove that residents are willing to shoulder their part of the burden, he said.
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