Looking For a Drink in Salcha

By Dave Donaldson

Residents of Salcha, a community of about a thousand people,   thirty three miles southeast of Fairbanks,  are trying to keep open a public water source – by telling people it might not be safe to drink. 

The community has no public water distribution or treatment system,  leaving residents to fend for themselves to get water – usually from private wells or by hauling it in from Fairbanks.  Only one local source has been available – a tap from a well at the fairgrounds there – originally drilled in 2003.

But a story in the News-Miner about a year ago got the attention of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.  The problem arose over the number of people who used the well  – it serves more than twenty five people,  and that brings it under control of Federal Regulations that require more testing and assurances than the people there want to get involved in.

A bill by former speaker John Harris would allow people to keep using the water by hanging a sign that tells users the well is unregulated,  the water may not meet minimum safety standards,  and people use it at their own risk.  Harris told the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee the option of meeting the federal requirement is too strict.

You have a regulated water supply that’s used by a few folks.  And the cost to supply that water, in the form of money and the effort made either by the department and-or anybody else involved seems to be either onerous or not in a regular form or whatever.

Kristin Ryan,  the director of environmental health at D-E-C,  says two hundred ninety five water systems in Alaska are smaller than Salcha – and they meet federal standards.   And unless Salcha takes the minimum steps,  use of the well will remain limited to twenty five people.

We really have our hands tied in bending the rules if there’s already a federal rule.  And we enforce no rules beyond what E-P-A requires.  The state has no additional requirements for these federal systems beyond what E-P-A is already mandating.  So I don’t really have much grounds to maneuver.

Ryan says the federal government requires the system to show there is no volatile compounds in the water,  such as spilled fuel.   They must also show the absence of Choloforms  that can cause severe illness, lead, copper, nitrates, radon  and arsenic.   And there is no way the state can help the community take or avoid the first step.

They need to go to a laboratory and have their water tested for all of those things,  which would be several hundred dollars.  They would have had the results back in approximately a month.   So that was the communication we had with Salcha.  Our goal would be for them to do those items, and then we know their water is safe and they could serve the entire community.

The bill will be heard again in the committee.  It is not now scheduled.


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