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Water’s radium risk downplayed ECUA officials kept their board, customers in the dark about threats

Scott Streater @PensacolaNewsJournal.com

Two former administrators of the Escambia County Utilities Authority were responsible for the decision to resist state and federal efforts to clean up high levels of radium that polluted drinking water in several ECUA wells for at least four years.

In doing so, the administrators kept the utility’s customers and its elected board of directors mostly in the dark.

The two administrators, ECUA Executive Director A.E. Van Van Dever Jr. and Bernie Dahl, scientific, technical and regulatory administrator, are no longer with the utility.

Dahl, who retired in January, declined to comment on the issue. Van Dever, who was fired last year by ECUA’s elected board, maintains that the utility under his administration never did anything that would endanger its customers.

But for more than four years, thousands of local residents used water, supplied by ECUA, that the two administrators knew contained levels of radium that exceeded federal health standards. During the time of the pollution, the utility delayed efforts to fix the problem.

A News Journal investigation reveals the public was subjected to high levels of radium 226/228 because ECUA feared having to spend millions of dollars to fix the problem. Instead, it hired consulting firms that helped it stall repeated attempts by state and federal regulators to force it to clean up the radium – a known human carcinogen linked to bone and nasal cancers and other ailments.

In addition, ECUA resisted notifying the public about the problem, first discovered in public wells on Feb. 13, 1996. When the utility was finally forced to disclose the problem, it produced legal notices and mailouts to customers that downplayed its significance.

Bernie Dahl, former scientific, technical and regulatory adviser for the Escambia County Utilities Authority, challenged the validity of the federal standards for radium in water. He had expected the limit to be increased. Special to the News Journal @PensacolaNewsJournal.com

Van Dever, 58, who served as executive director for 13 years, has told the public, the ECUA board and state regulators that radium in the utility’s wells, despite violating federal law, never posed a significant health risk.

Anything I have said or written on this topic I still believe to be very true, he said last month in a brief interview. Nothing I’ve heard since I left has changed my mind on that.

Van Dever, now director of the Utilities Department for the City of Lake Worth, Fla., said that to the best of his knowledge, ECUA has never delivered water to its customers considered unsafe to drink. That’s really all I have to say. I can’t be there to defend myself on every little detail. I’ve got to pick a broad statement that covers everything.

Dahl, 64, now lives in Red Rock, Okla. I’m retired, he said.

I haven’t been in touch with anyone at ECUA or been involved in any of the information or the actions themselves in some time. So I really don’t feel comfortable commenting at all. Tim Haag, ECUA’s assistant to the executive director, defends Dahl. This was his water system, Haag said. If Bernie was aware of a problem with the product water or potential dangers to human health, he would not have let that happen.

In addition, Haag said Van Dever and Dahl were not trying to hide anything.

Categorically, I can say that there was never any intention to deceive or cover up on the behalf of ECUA’s administration, he said. And I truly believe Van and Bernie didn’t think there was anything to cover up. Thousands of pages of ECUA reports, e-mails, memorandums, government correspondence and court records, however, raise many questions.

Handwritten, undated notes by Dahl, written sometime after April 2000, show he knew fluoride measured in ECUA wells was from Agrico, and that high levels of aluminum and manganese were most likely from Agrico. He also wrote that extreme acid from Agrico could have dislodged the naturally occurring radium 226/228 in underground rocks and released it into the aquifer that supplies Escambia and Santa Rosa counties with their drinking water.

Dahl and Van Dever, records show, resisted efforts to fix the problem. They complained to state environmental regulators in 1998 it would cost as much as $5 million to install pollution controls at each well to bring them into compliance with the federal health standard.

Dahl told the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in September 1998 that it would cost as much as $150 million if the utility had to treat all 30 wells in service at the time.

But the steps ECUA eventually took to correct the radium problem cost considerably less. The utility closed the No. 9 and East wells, both of which served Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, at a cost of about $16,000, ECUA officials said. Also, it spent $515,000 on equipment to mix radium-tainted water at the Hagler well with clean water from two other wells.

Dahl and Van Dever argued that the radium levels, despite violating federal health standards, would not harm anyone, and that water from each well was mixed with water from other wells, diluting it to levels safe for human consumption, records show.

But, records show, Van Dever and Dahl knew polluted water was being consumed by area residents.

They had results of extensive tapwater samples that showed the water coming out of faucets in numerous homes and businesses across Pensacola and Gulf Breeze was contaminated with radium in excess of federal standards. These included facilities such as Cordova Park Elementary School and Pensacola Regional Airport.

Van Dever and Dahl challenged the validity of the federal radium standard. They argued that the federal government was set to weaken standards to allow radium concentrations in drinking water up to eight times the current limit, records show. It made no sense, they said, to spend millions of dollars to comply with a standard that soon would be out of date.

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, did not change the radium standard.

While the federal government did announce in July 1991 it intended to increase allowable concentrations of radium in drinking water, it had decided by 1996 against doing so, said David Huber, EPA’s top radium expert in Washington.

ECUA tried to convince the public that radium was not dangerous. The utility argued to state regulators – and eventually the public – that there was no serious health threat from drinking water with radium 226/228 above federal health standards.

It insisted in several mailouts to customers that the level of radium in its water posed no significant risk to public health. It hired Hazardous Substance & Waste Management Research Inc. to help guide it on the environmental health impacts of the radium.

The Tallahassee-based firm did not see any problem with radium concentrations in the wells above the federal health-based limit of 5 picocuries – a measure of radioactivity – per liter.

I don’t believe a few picocuries above the federal threshold is a chronic health concern. Certainly not over a period of months and years, Christopher Teaf, the firm’s president, and a toxicologist by training, said in a recent interview.

But Teaf said he had not seen the tapwater samples that showed high radium levels in public buildings and homes, and declined to discuss whether that changes his view.

As late as July 2001, ECUA sent mailouts that included paragraphs such as: Although radium levels in two wells exceed the federal standard, both the toxicologists with the Florida Department of Health and our consulting scientists agree that there is no significant increase in short-term or lifetime risk to public health associated with the use and consumption of ECUA water. The Escambia County Health Department agreed with the statement, as long as the radium problem was resolved quickly, said Dr. John Lanza, Health Department director. But other health experts, including those who have studied low-level radium, insist there was a risk.

Dr. Janette Sherman, a toxicologist at Western Michigan University who has studied low-level radium, termed the ECUA statement baloney. Ernest Sternglass, a nuclear physicist and radium expert at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, labeled it a complete misstatement. Sternglass, Sherman and other health experts questioned ECUA’s motives for telling the community that radium violating the federal health standard would not harm residents.

To me, that kind of public response is a red flag, said Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health. That’s the response of people who want to convince the public, ‘We know everything,’ which we don’t, and that you as a resident are irresponsible to be concerned about your water. Tapwater samples In November 1998, ECUA and the Health Department began a widespread tapwater sampling effort.

By early December the results were in, and they were not good.

The first round of samples found high levels of radium coming out of water faucets at Cordova Park Elementary School and Bayview Park. The next round was even worse.

Tapwater samples revealed high radium concentrations in water fountains at the Santa Rosa Island Authority offices on Pensacola Beach, the tourist Welcome Center at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge and at Pensacola Regional Airport.

Moreover, the sampling found high levels of radium in more than a dozen Escambia County homes.

None of these sample results was shared with ECUA customers.

They were given to DEP. Nearly three years after the radium was first measured in the wells, the regulatory agency began preparing to take enforcement action.

It drafted a consent order in December 1998 that would have given the ECUA 90 days to commission a study by a professional engineering firm to determine … the most economically viable alternatives for reducing radium concentrations below the federal threshold. It also included a stipulation that residents who requested it be given an alternative source of water.

Again, ECUA administrators resisted.

Dahl, in January 1999, submitted an amended version of the draft consent order. In it, the utility requested permission to reopen the No. 9 well, closed since the previous year because of radium contamination that had never been addressed. Once again, the issue of whether the federal radium standard would change took center stage.

It would be an inappropriate expenditure of financial resources to investigate and design treatment alternatives to comply with federal radium standards, Dahl wrote, if those standards are likely to change. As for the alternate water supply: Eliminate completely, he wrote.

Bobby Cooley, then DEP’s Northwest District director, responded two weeks later in a letter to Dahl that removing requirements to fix the problem would result in an order without substance. Also, he insisted that an alternative water source was necessary.

It is paramount that the provision of an alternative source of water that complies with all current drinking water standards is provided, he wrote. Simply put, without an alternative source for customers who are so desirous, the department would be remiss in allowing the continued provision of water to the public that does not comply with standards outlined by the state.

Health Department’s role The state’s efforts to supply residents with an alternate water source was quashed by an unexpected source – the Florida Department of Health. In an April 1999 letter to DEP, Sharon Heber, director of the Florida Department of Health’s division for environmental health in Tallahassee, wrote that while ECUA had to comply with the federal radium standards, the Health Department did not support requiring it to supply an alternate water source.

Heber based her conclusion on mathematical health-risk calculations that, in essence, concluded drinking radium-tainted water for several years, or however long it took to correct the problem, would not pose a significant health threat. At one point in 1998, state regulators calculated the health risks to people drinking water from the Hagler well was 6.7 times greater than the acceptable federal threshold, and 5.5 times greater at the East well.

Based on Heber’s calculations, the Department of Health believes that it is not necessary at this time to require that people in Pensacola who are drinking public water containing radium above the (federal threshold) be provided with an alternate drinking water supply. Her letter drew an angry response from Van Hoofnagle, administrator of DEP’s Drinking Water Section in Tallahassee. We do not share your sense of comfort regarding the health risk to people in Pensacola who are drinking water containing radium 226/228, he wrote in a May 1999 letter to Heber. You seem to be implying that there is a threshold radium 226/228 dose below which cancer is not likely to occur. This departs from the (EPA’s) approach.

Three months later, however, DEP abruptly dropped its demands, even though Hoofnagle said he believes an alternate source of drinking water should have been provided to those who requested it.

The DEP is the lead agency for implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said in a recent interview. But when it comes to public health decisions based on those standards, we defer to the public health officials. Ultimately, they make the call on public health determinations. But DEP continued to press ECUA to quickly take corrective action for contaminated wells, and to properly notify the public whenever a radium violation occurred, Hoofnagle wrote in an August 1999 memorandum.

To Hoofnagle, the health risks associated with radium-tainted water are obvious, he said recently. He said he does not always share the public’s concerns about various pollutants in drinking water. But with radionuclides, you do see significant health concerns across the country over these things. Radium ‘much riskier’ Meanwhile, ECUA continued to measure high levels of radium 226/228 in the East and Hagler wells.

Once again, the state ordered it to tell its ratepayers.

Once again, the utility resisted.

We believe that the strict application of this (notification) rule wastes ratepayers’ monies, which could otherwise be better spent on improvements to our water system, Dahl wrote in an Oct. 1, 1999, letter to DEP.

In February 2000 – four years after radium was first measured in an ECUA well – DEP and the utility finalized a negotiated consent order that included a modest $15,500 penalty for the radium violations and failure to properly notify the public. But it contained no mandatory timeline for correcting the problem.

The order was a victory for the utility, Van Dever wrote to the ECUA board in a Feb. 24, 2000, letter.

The requirement to provide an alternate source of water, which was in the original language, has been removed, he wrote. Most importantly, this consent order does not require ECUA to commit to any corrective action at this time. That same month, ECUA mailed a notice entitled Update on Radionuclides to the 10,613 customers estimated to receive water from either the East or Hagler wells. EPA is currently debating whether or not to raise the federal limit on radium in drinking water, the mailout said. There is significant support for changing the (limit) to a higher number. But on April 21, 2000, EPA formally announced what it had been telling public utilities and state regulators since 1996 – the existing radium standard would remain unchanged. What’s more, new data and models suggest that radionuclides are much riskier than thought, according to the EPA notice.

The new goal: a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for all radionuclides in drinking water.

The message was clear: No level of radium in drinking water was considered acceptable by EPA. Issue comes to a head In March 2001, Pensacola lawyer Mike Papantonio filed a $500 million lawsuit against Conoco Inc. and Agrico Chemical Co. for alleged damages caused by pollution from the old Agrico plant.

Conoco owns the 35-acre plant site, and Agrico was the last company to operate the plant.

The lawsuit deals mostly with alleged property value damage caused by the underground plume from the Agrico site, which has contaminated numerous private irrigation wells and sediments in Bayou Texar. Conoco has denied the allegations in Papantonio’s lawsuit, which is not expected to go to trial until next year. At first, Papantonio tried to persuade ECUA to join the lawsuit. But in February 2002, he circulated documents he claimed demonstrated the utility tried to hide the radium contamination from the public and its own elected board.

ECUA staff staunchly denied the allegations at a board meeting that month.

ECUA has never … delivered water to the customer that was considered hazardous to health, Van Dever told the board, records show.

He explained to the board that as soon as ECUA wells began measuring levels of radium 226/228 that exceeded the federal standard, the staff discussed the situation with an unnamed consultant. In understanding what the situation was with our consultant, it was clear that we really were not dealing with a health issue. We were probably dealing with a perception issue, Van Dever told the board, according to records.

Board member Dale Perkins then asked an obvious question: What technical expertise do we have to be able to determine that water with radium levels above the federal standard is not a health threat? What technical expertise do we have in-house, that we decided without consulting the board, that it was not a health threat? Van Dever, records show, answered that ECUA had to trust its consultants and the Health Department. That didn’t sit well with Perkins.

According to minutes of the meeting, he told the board that he feels it is clear that there have been problems with staff and that the public has not been properly informed. He added that the board needs to make some changes at the staff level in order to regain the confidence of the public, and to try to make sure that the board is getting good communication and people feel like they will be told if there is a problem.

The board voted at its next meeting, in March 2002, to fire Van Dever.

The vote was unanimous.


Reports that radioactive material contaminated the drinking
water in Pensacola surfaced in the local media 17 months ago. Public documents now
reveal that for at least 54 months, between February 1996 and September 2000, more
than 10,000 residents in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze were drinking water considered
unsafe by the federal government. Two former Escambia County Utilities Authority
administrators knew about the contamination and delayed notifying the public. ECUA
officials also resisted efforts to take immediate action to remove the contamination
from the drinking water. This series looks at the source of the contamination, why
it took so long to eliminate it and the impact on the community. The series also
examines whether the EPA-approved plan to clean up the old Agrico Chemical Co. fertilizer plant adequately protects people and the underground aquifer that services the Pensacola
Bay Area. Follow the situation by clicking on the drop-down menu below. Click on
the image above for a detailed map of the toxic plume considered to be the source
of the contamination.