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Oklahoma cities need help with new water regulations, panel told

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahoma municipal water utilities asked U.S. senators for help Monday in meeting recent federal water cleanliness standards, saying they're too big a burden on already tight city finances.

The officials said the requirements limiting the amounts of certain chemicals in drinking water will require massive upgrades of treatment plants and other infrastructure that they can't afford.

Avril Morgan, district manager of the Wagoner County Water District, said his district needs to spend $1.5 million to upgrade its plant to produce water that complies with the standards.

"You divide that by 2,550 water customers, and it's going to be expensive," Morgan told a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., called the meeting to gather information as his panel considers ways to ease the burden on municipalities, particularly the small ones hit hardest by costs.

"It is important to note that this hearing is not about rolling back protections," Inhofe said. "However, we do need to ensure that our limited resources are put where they are most critically needed to address real problems and real health interests."

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the subcommittee on fisheries, wildlife and water, said the committee will consider whether the standards are appropriate and whether any cost cuts can be found.

"Communities who don't have the ability to generate the economies of scale that large communities can are facing a massive unfunded mandate," said Crapo, who also attended the hearing at the University of Tulsa.

The hearing came after the Environmental Protection Agency has tightened acceptable limits of chemicals such as arsenic and certain acids in the nation's drinking water.

The arsenic standard, which goes into effect January 2006, lowers the acceptable limit from the current 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. That change will put 4,000 water systems serving 11 million people nationwide out of compliance.

Morgan, whose northeast Oklahoma water district draws its water from the Verdigris River, said the district needs either more time to comply, a change in the new standard, or money to upgrade its 1980s plant.

"Our plant will not produce water that will put us in compliance," he said.

Clay McAlpine, director of engineering for the City of Muskogee, said meeting the new acid standards has more than doubled the amount his water utility spends on purification chemicals.

That's draining money from other important improvements, like widening pipes to support fire protection efforts and increasing water pressure, McAlpine said.

"I therefore question if these proposed regulations are truly serving the public's health interest in the most cost effective manner," McAlpine said.
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