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Elizabeth Bluemink

Drinking water for area residents is safe from radium but might face a future risk from other contaminants, the executive director of the Escambia County Utilities Authority said Tuesday.

“A lot of people have been scared to death (about radium). The bottom line is, the risk is extremely low,” Steve Sorrell told a meeting of the Downtown Rotary Club in Pensacola.

However, he said the local aquifer remains threatened by a number of man-made pollutants linked to industrial and commercial activities in the Palafox Street industrial corridor. Those toxic compounds include nitrates, the dry-cleaning pollutant PCE, the gasoline additive MTBE and benzene.

“It appears to me that people in this area, long before my time, have abused the environment and not used proper care and disposal for many of these contaminants which we now see in the water supply,” Sorrell said.

Some of the pollution in the wells is linked to old fertilizer companies in the industrial corridor, Sorrell said.

“It is our intention to conduct additional research to determine the source, if possible, of some of the contaminants,” he said. “It appears at this time that natural filtering of pollutants through the groundwater is working. Periodic testing will tell us if any additional filtration or chemical (treatment) is necessary.”

The Utilities Authority and Escambia Health Department have been conducting radium tests since October, after a News Journal series revealed several wells supplying thousands of homes and businesses from 1996 to 2000 were tainted by radium.

But Sorrell believes high results during those four years may have been inaccurate. He provided evidence of conflicting results: Different labs reported high and low levels of radium during that time frame.

“At this point, we are still not sure” which of those previous reports are correct, he told the crowd.

Results received from the utility’s fall testing show all but one well – the Dunaway well near Saufley Field – is safe from radium. The Dunaway well had never tested high for radium in the past. That well is closed pending the results of a new test that will be available in a couple weeks.

Radium tests announced in November showed two elementary schools – Cook and Suter – with high levels of radium. Health officials are attempting to learn if radium could be accumulating there in water pipes.

Additional test results for tapwater at the schools and other public buildings may be available this week.

Gene Schmidt, a Pensacola mechanical engineer, was reassured by what he heard Tuesday.

“It made me feel that there isn’t a lot to worry about and it puts the relative risk in perspective.”

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