Environment Living in Society Social Commentary

Solon City Council Steps Up

Column in the Cedar Rapids Gazette

The City of Solon acted as a good neighbor on Dec. 20 when its city council voted 4-1 to provide water to Gallery Acres West, a subdivision three miles west of the city.

The subdivision sought water service to help resolve its long-standing non-compliance with revised drinking water standards for arsenic published by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Who wants arsenic in their drinking water? It depends.

In 1975, EPA set a standard of 50 ppb of arsenic for public water systems based on a Public Health Service standard established in 1942. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences concluded 50 ppb did not achieve EPA’s goal of protecting public health and should be lowered as soon as possible to allay long-term risks of low level exposure to arsenic.

EPA now has a goal of zero arsenic in public water systems however the goal is not technically feasible. The agency acknowledged there is a trade off between the cost of removing arsenic and its public health benefits.

“After careful consideration of the benefits and the costs,” an EPA fact sheet issued in 2001 said, “EPA has decided to set the drinking water standard for arsenic higher than the technically feasible level of 3 parts per billion (ppb) because EPA believes that the costs would not justify the benefits at this level.”

After multiple public hearings, EPA set the rule for arsenic at 10 ppb and public water systems were given five years after the arsenic rule was published to comply.

Some of us who manage public water systems took the new rule seriously and endeavored to comply. Others did not, and that leads us to Gallery Acres West. Their water system had its first violation of the new arsenic standard in 2002, failed to take action to reduce arsenic in their water system, and in 2015 was threatened with legal action by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to force compliance.

During an Oct. 30 telephone call, I asked Mark Steiger, president of the Gallery Acres West home owners association, why they had not complied with the 2001 arsenic rule. He told me it was the cost of compliance. With only 14 homes in their association compliance would run thousands of dollars per household. I get it. As president of a home owners association that managed the same compliance issue for our public water system with 85 homes, it cost us $2,823.83 plus interest per household to upgrade our treatment facility to remove arsenic. In Gallery Acres West’s trade off between the cost of arsenic removal and public health, cost trumped health and residents continue to use drinking water with high arsenic content and will until they hook up to Solon.

The proliferation of development in unincorporated areas raises an issue of the quality of management in home owners associations. There are perceived freedoms in living in a small, insular community away from city life. There is also a cost. Things that could be taken for granted in a municipality require attention and potential action in rural Iowa.

It’s a good thing Gallery Acres West is close to a municipality willing to do their work for them.

~ First published on Dec. 27, 2017 in the Cedar Rapids Gazette