State, activists disagree on water quality

Emily Dalnodar

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the locals take water quality seriously.
Local experts are addressing the state’s water purity rating at the sixth biennial Minnesota Water Conference. This year’s focus is on protecting the state’s water supplies.
Hosted by the University and the Minnesota Water Resources Center, the conference touches on key issues in water quality and assessment.
“(The topic) was my idea, but it was based on the fact that there’s interest in the quality of drinking water these days,” said Pat Brezonik, director of the water resources center. “It seems to be a timely topic.”
Water contaminants, new quality reports and public awareness highlight the conference. Speakers, displays and educational sessions outline problems, solutions and new technologies during the two-day affair, which ends today.
More than 300 people milled around the Holiday Inn Metrodome on Tuesday. Guest speakers, including some from the Minnesota Department of Health, the University and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, discussed pressing water supply issues.
As a state, Minnesota is doing a great job ensuring high water quality, said Anne Barry, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner. But problems arise when people assume drinking water is safe, she said.
This attitude shows the state’s water management efforts are effective; however, more public involvement is necessary for dealing with new problems that inevitably arise, she said.
One such issue nationwide is the danger of chlorine byproducts created when chlorine reacts with organic matter in the water.
Utility plants use chlorine as a purifying agent, said Stew Thornley, health educator with the state Department of Health.
Although chlorine wipes away severe dangers such as disease-causing bacteria in the water supply, it creates other potential hazards. Long-term excessive exposure to trihalomethene, one chlorine byproduct, has been found to cause cancer. A one-time exposure, if concentrated highly enough, can cause birth defects or spontaneous abortions.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets national limits for safe levels of chlorine byproducts in the water. The current limit is 100 micrograms per liter, Thornley said. But agency proposals would lower the ceiling to 80 micrograms per liter.
The agency is also discussing ways to implement new regulations requiring Minnesota’s 950 water suppliers to perform a yearly water study. They will be required to make the results available to their customers.
The program will take effect in 1999.
“It’s interesting to see the contrast between what the state is saying, Drinking water quality is just fine,’ and what the activists say, All these new upcoming problems, million-dollar investments,'” said Shandor Szalay, a graduate student in water resources who helped organize the conference.
“It will be interesting to see how these contrasting viewpoints will play out in the rest of the speakers,” he added.