Monday, October 6, 2008

Failed Legal Battles Led To Waukesha's Radium Penalties

Wisconsin regulators are recommending civil forfeitures against the City of Waukesha's water utility for failing to resolve radium-contamination in its drinking water.

Since Waukesha is moving towards bringing its drinking water quality into compliance, some may argue that the state enforcement recommendation is unfair.

But don't presume that the state is picking on Waukesha: Officials there delayed compliance for many years as they mounted a fruitless, and costly legal challenge to the compliance standard.

Waukesha could have been providing its residents with cleaner water years ago had it installed filtration equipment instead of paying lawyers to resist the standard - - proposed by the feds in 1976.

Waukesha has missed compliance deadlines, gotten extensions, lost its court challenge in 2003 and worked towards solutions, but at some point, it knew that penalties would be assessed.

I agree with speculation that there will be a settlement of the enforcement case, and I am sure that Waukesha will use the issue as another exhibit in its quest for a diversion and a Lake Michigan water supply.

That will put Waukesha into another set of legal and compliance thickets because it must meet new requirements that govern how and where to send diverted water for its mandated return to Lake Michigan.

Under the just-passed Great Lakes Compact, a law supported by Waukesha officials, the water utility can't blend that water with any other sources and return that mixture to Lake Michigan.

And the utility can't discharge it willy-nilly into a Lake Michigan tributary like Underwood Creek or the Root River if that were to degrade downstream water quality or increase the possibility of flooding.

These issues will dealt with in Waukesha's diversion application, and that, in turn, must past must muster with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - - the same agency recommending the current enforcement action - - and the other seven Great Lakes states, as well.

Waukesha could be the first community applying for a diversion under the Compact that would require that level of approval, and all parties would be aware that it will set precedents for application content and reviewers' scrutiny.

That's all to the good.

It'll be certainly be a step forward for Waukesha to provide better drinking water to its customers, but as it approaches the costs and complexities of a Lake Michigan solution, it has to be kicking itself for failing to have brought its customers a safer water supply years ago.

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