Columnist Dan Dewitt: It would be better to clean up our act

Just when I'd started to get used to the idea of poisonous tap water, I found out it's really poisonous.

We've known for a while that we had some arsenic in our well water, 22 parts per billion to be exact.

That's higher than the federal Environmental Protection Agency's maximum safe level of 10 parts per billion, but lower than the old federal limit, and lower even than the concentration found in some brands of that favorite of toddlers, apple juice.

We didn't drink our water, of course, or cook with it.

And I sometimes thought, looking ahead to when we try to sell our house, that it sure would be nice if we were dealing with a less alarming and notorious toxin, one that didn't show up in so many history books and crime novels.

But I didn't really worry about it.

Now, well, I don't know.

Last week, we got a letter from the state Department of Health, which has started retesting contaminated wells in Hernando County. Our new level, the letter said, is 78 parts per billion.

That's still not high enough to make us keel over or to turn our feet black, a symptom of acute arsenic poisoning. But it is close to the levels linked to an increase risk of cancer.

All this is not to moan about my troubles. It's a roundabout way to make a point, that pollution is expensive.

Yes, arsenic can occur naturally. But, until a few decades ago, it was the go-to ingredient for killing agricultural pests: fungus, insects, nematodes and weeds. It was sprayed in groves and on row crops. Vats for dipping tick-infested cattle (there were 36 of them in Hernando) held as many as 2,000 gallons of concentrated arsenic solution. And it just so happens that the best land for raising oranges, cantaloupes and cattle, the Spring Lake area, the area most likely to be doused with arsenic, is precisely where it's showing up now.

So, if I had to guess, I'd say that's the cause — the way things were done in Florida before environmental awareness, before Silent Spring, before the Clean Water Act, before all that hateful regulation.

Restrictions on industry kill jobs, we've heard, and we'd all be better off if a lot of them just went away.

Considering the 26 percent reduction in funding for the Department of Environmental Protection since 2008 and the way the department's leadership recently bulldozed a respected, longtime staffer's objections to a boondoggle of a wetlands mitigation project, it looks as though state lawmakers and/or Gov. Rick Scott are putting their anti-regulatory feelings into practice.

The costs, potentially, are huge: cleanups, loss of property value, a lack of money from tourists who might decide on another destination after hearing about, for example, vast algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The costs of dealing with arsenic in Hernando are tiny in comparison. But enough that we can all imagine the good this money might do if spent another way.

There are now 363 contaminated residential wells in Hernando. The state will pay $194,236 this year to provide filters or bottled water to these homes.

That cost might go up if the retesting finds that more wells, like ours, are contaminated enough to justify whole-house filters, which cost thousands of dollars each.

And the only way to make this expense go away permanently is to run water lines to every house with a contaminated well. This was considered a few years ago, and the price tag really was significant — $15 million.

So wouldn't it be easier, and cheaper, and healthier, to make sure our state isn't polluted in the first place?

• • •

We've heard your complaints. We know you'd like something to fill the gap in coverage created when we do not publish the Hernando Times on Mondays and Tuesdays.

One partial solution: an Internet-only column, Quick Hits, that I recently started writing and posting on the Hernando page of Tampabay.com by noon Mondays. It might include bits of news, short opinion pieces, or maybe just notes on worthwhile things I saw or did over the weekend.

If you have suggestions for items to include, or comments or gripes, contact me by telephone at (352) 754-6116 or by email at ddewitt@tampabay.com. And, of course, you can join the dozens of folks now following me on Twitter at @ddewitttimes.

Columnist Dan Dewitt: It would be better to clean up our act 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 2:21pm]

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