Whitehall residents warned about uranium in water


WHITEHALL, Mont. - The town of Whitehall has had problems with their water for close to a year. Last year it was E. coli contamination, now it's too much uranium.

Officials sent several notices to residents about the water being contaminated.

Although town leaders say there's no immediate risk, the notice does say uranium can cause cancer over time. When we asked state environmental experts about it they said uranium can be absorbed into the blood stream causing kidney problems.

"In December 2015 we got a notice that our water was contaminated with high levels of uranium," said Whitehall resident Annissa Hastie.

Hastie is a one of many Whitehall residents who received the notice from the town clerk's office.

The state first issued violation notices in August and September of 2015.

As a result of the water issues some residents are buying bottled water.

Whitehall school officials installed safe, filtered drinking water systems.

"When the city determined our water was unsafe to drink -- we have 365 kids that need water every day -- we thought at that time the best thing we could do was provide bottled water," said Whitehall Schools Superintendent John Sullivan.

"From what we know now the city says the water is safe to drink, but we wanted to take the initiative and provide filtered water for our students," he added.

Even though the city says the water is now safe to drink, some residents are not willing to stay around the area.

"We just think its best we go somewhere the water is safer, and we don't have to continue to purchase alternative water sources," said Hastie.

Naturally occurring uranium has very low levels of radioactivity. However, the chemical properties of uranium in drinking water are of greater concern than its radioactivity. Most ingested uranium is eliminated from the body. However, a small amount is absorbed and carried through the bloodstream. Studies show that drinking water with elevated levels of uranium can affect the kidneys over time. Bathing and showering with water that contains uranium is not a health concern.

Uranium is a chronic contaminant meaning there is the development of adverse effects as a result of long term exposure over many years. While there is no immediate risk, DEQ is concerned with all exceedances.

The maximum contaminant level for uranium in drinking water is 30 micrograms per liter (ug/l). Monitoring conducted by the Town of Whitehall measured uranium concentrations of up to 43 ug/l. When this issue was originally reported to DEQ in 2016, DEQ recommended that the town post the required public notice, immediately pursue corrective action, and continue to sample quarterly.

DEQ and the town of Whitehall signed an administrative order on consent (AOC) on Jan. 31, 2017. The AOC requires a plan within 60 days to correct uranium exceedances. DEQ will approve the plan and the schedule for Whitehall to correct the problem. This is an ongoing issue, most likely requiring treatment upgrades.

- Kristi Ponozzo Montana Department of Environmental Quality

The state and Whitehall just signed a deal that gives the town 60 days to fix the uranium problem. But in a statement the state says any solution will likely cost money to upgrade treatment facilities.