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Is It Safe to Drink?

October 31, 1995
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Despite state assurances that the water you drink in Missouri is safe, others - including federal environmental experts - say you ought to be concerned.

There is little dispute that herbicides, pesticides, lead, and untreated sewage are in Missouri waters. The issue is whether those pollutants are ending up in the glass of water that goes down your throat.

"Overall, water quality is very good," said Scott Totten, deputy director for Missouri's Environmental Quality Division. But other environmental experts said agricultural chemicals do pose a problem for water quality.

"Our major concern is the impact of farm chemicals and agricultural chemicals," said Bill Landis, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency.

High levels of these chemicals were found over the summer in the drinking water of 10 northern Missouri communities.

The EPA recently placed herbicides atrazine and cyanazine under special review. "There are concerns that atrazine may cause cancer," Lane said.

In 1994 the state Natural Resources Department conducted its own study of atrazine - a commonly used herbicide.

"We have detected atrazine in about half of the surface water systems," said Jerry Lane, director of Missouri's Public Drinking Water Program. Surface water systems supply drinking water to about 75 percent of Missouri's population.

"The Missouri River is deluged with agricultural chemicals in the springtime," said Ken Midkiff, Ozark Chapter Program Director for the Sierra Club. "Communities who don't have atrazine removal standards exceed federal standards considerably at certain times of the year."

But chemical contamination is not the only problem.

"In older cities there is a combined sewer and discharge overflow that goes directly into the water without being treated," Larry Shepard of the EPA said.

Midkiff said this is common even when there is not a hard rain.

"There are obviously spots in the Missouri River where you have combined sewers and runoff and it wouldn't be a good idea to swim in those areas," Shepard said.

Both Kansas City and St. Louis have these outdated systems which discharge into the Missouri River, Shepard said. Kansas City, St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Jefferson City, along with numerous smaller towns, take at least some of their drinking water directly from the Missouri River.

Human waste isn't the only concern. Six hog waste spills in northern Missouri earlier this month decimated the aquatic habitat in the two streams affected by the spill.

"The spill affects aquatic life, disrupts stream quality for a period, and also affects drinking water supplies," Landis said.

Midkiff said hog farms could cause long-term damage to Missouri's water quality if they build near a community's water supply. "It's clear that they have the likelihood of destroying long stretches of streams," Midkiff said.

In southern Missouri's lead belt, lead mining companies are under investigation for discharging waste into the Black River, according to Midkiff. He said the state Health Department has restricted consumption of fish in the west fork of the river.

"Asarco [a lead mining company] is continuing to dump mine water waste directly into the river which contains lead particles," Midkiff said. He said the Natural Resources Department has turned the case over to the Attorney General's office.

While environmental program directors are trying to maintain state and federal standards, federal budget cuts slated for the 1996 fiscal year could make that increasingly hard to accomplish. Water quality control experts cite lack of funding as a big problem.

"We've fallen behind in our ability to assess our waters because of lack of funds," Shepard said. And with federal budget cuts on the agenda for FY 96, the funding situation doesn't look promising for the future.

"It will significantly impair EPA's ability if enforcement funds are cut," Midkiff said. "The cuts they are proposing go beyond fiscal efficiency," he said.

"If they cut drinking water research dollars, we're not going to be able to identify contaminants of concern in the future," Lane said. "We may come up short - we need a basic level of research to be sure we identify contaminants."