Eastern Wa some county wells have tainted water

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Some Basin well water tainted, study says By The Associated Press

SPOKANE - A ground water study found that nearly a quarter of the wells in three Eastern Washington counties have nitrate concentrations exceeding drinking water standards, federal officials say.

Twenty-three percent of 574 wells sampled in Adams, Franklin and Grant counties exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 10 milligrams per liter, according to results of a 2 1/2-year survey released Saturday by the U.S. Geological Survey.

An additional 37 percent of wells tested in the fall of 1998 had elevated concentrations of 3 to 10 milligrams.

Ground water nitrates, while not usually a threat to healthy adults, have been linked to a potentially fatal blood disease called methemoglobinemia that affects infants. The condition, also known as blue baby syndrome, can lead to lethargy, mental retardation and death if left untreated.

The most common source of exposure for infants is believed to be drinking water used to dilute baby formula.

The survey was conducted after smaller-scale studies in 1995 detected excessive nitrate levels in about 20 percent of wells in the Columbia Basin, which contains nearly 1 million acres of irrigated farm land.

The new study found 30 percent of the samples exceeded the drinking water standard in Franklin County, with about 20 percent of wells testing above the limit in Grant and Adams counties.

The results "were expected, given the findings of other ground water investigations and the history of the area," Adams County Commissioner Bill Schlagel said in a prepared statement.

The 1995 findings led the three counties' commissioners to form a ground water management program to more closely scrutinize use of fertilizers, believed to be the primary source of nitrate pollution.

Federal officials are assisting. The survey results will provide baseline data used to measure progress in reducing contamination.

Citizen committees with a total of nearly 100 volunteer members plan to release a draft plan to address the problem this summer.

"Now that we have these data, we are using them to develop a model that can evaluate how vulnerable the ground water is to elevated nitrate concentrations," said Lonna Frans, co-author of the Geological Survey study.

Researchers are studying how nitrates applied in fertilizers move from the ground to ground water and how quickly they migrate.

In addition to fertilizers, other potential sources of nitrate contamination include cattle feedlots, food processing plants, septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants.

The state Department of Health recently found that water systems for camps serving 10,000 migrant workers failed to meet state health standards, and 20 percent had excessive nitrate levels.

State inspectors said they found a need for repairs ranging from minor improvements to complete replacement in 101 of the 179 wells and other water systems they tested. More than half, 94, lacked licenses and had not been tested for basic water safety as required.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 20, 2000

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