Washington County wary of well water

Associated Press

BAYTOWN TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- Virgil and Arlene Scharpen offer visitors to their Baytown Township home some reassurance along with a morning cup of coffee.

"It's made with bottled water," Arlene Scharpen said.

The Scharpens have a pair of new 4-foot water filters in their basement, but they refuse to drink the filtered water until they see test results that show all traces of a toxic chemical have been removed.

The Scharpens are among hundreds of Washington County homeowners in the area worried about potentially unsafe levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in their private wells.


The Minnesota Department of Health has recommended the township consider a public water system rather than filtering water from hundreds of wells, although such a system could cost $25 million, and it's unclear whether it's economically feasible.

TCE contamination became a public health and political issue in the county last month after the state health department changed its recommended exposure limit for the possible carcinogen.

The contamination area is about six miles square and begins just west of the Lake Elmo Airport and extends east to the city of Bayport and the St. Croix River.

Standard changed

While the Scharpens and others wonder why the state health department didn't adopt a more stringent standard for TCE levels in private wells years ago, local officials are considering a community or municipal water supply for the township.

The Scharpens say they would have immediately installed a carbon water filter system in their home if they had known that TCE was as toxic as state health officials now say it is.

"We were told at the time that we were in the safe range," said Arlene Scharpen.

The Scharpens have one of the higher levels of TCE in the area. In 1999, their well water tested at 28 parts per billion, just under the previous health risk limit of 30 parts per billion, but quite a bit over the new recommended exposure limit of 5 parts per billion.


The state health department changed its recommended exposure level for TCE in February after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report saying the contaminant might be more toxic than previously thought, said Jim Kelly, a health assessor with the department.

Risky chemical

Drinking water criteria are based on long-term exposure to TCE, with an assumed consumption of 2 liters of water a day. Because TCE evaporates easily from water, people can also be exposed to it by inhaling the vapor.

TCE is used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts, but it is also an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids and spot removers.

The chemical is known to cause cancer in animals and is listed by the EPA as a probable cancer-causing agent in humans. It also is linked with birth defects in children whose mothers are exposed to it.

Although officials say no clear source of TCE has been identified in Baytown Township, the highest levels have been found in ground water beneath the Lake Elmo Airport, which is owned and operated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

MAC has agreed to pay for the installation of high-quality water filters on wells like the Scharpens' where the pollution equals or exceeds 5 parts per billion.

Each filter costs about $2,000, and officials expect that about 150 homes will need the filters. Thirteen wells at and around the airport registered levels above 30 parts per billion in 1999.


About 90 homes that were in the 3 to 5 parts per billion zones in 1999 already have been tested to see whether levels have increased. Early results show that about half the homes tested so far have TCE levels higher than 5, said Rich Baxter, pollution control specialist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

In the meantime, gallons of bottled water are being supplied to people whose wells test positive for TCE. Another 225 homes will be tested this spring and summer; about 100 more will be tested in the fall.

As more and more people move into the area, the township might need to consider a community or public water system, said Mike Amundson, chairman of Baytown Township's planning and zoning commission.

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