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WATER TESTING MAY RAISE BILLS, OFFICIALS SAY

Small town officials worry that they'll have to raise water bills by hundreds of dollars next year to pay for government-mandated tests and treatment of their drinking water.

The Environment Protection Agency is adding 38 contaminants - including mercury, PCBs and a range of farm chemicals - to the current list of 24 for which communities must monitor their water four times a year.The testing was mandated by Congress in 1986 after years of government inaction on concerns about the safety of the nation's water supplies.

But many state and local officials say the additional tests, which can cost thousands of dollars to conduct, could double the costs of operating small water systems. Tests and water treatment could raise rural household bills by $1,000 a year, according to some estimates.

"The cost is a heavy burden on a small community," said Walt Annerer, the water plant superintendent in Grand Marais, Minn., a community of 1,300 people on Lake Superior. "We've all got to have clean water, but it's real hard for a small community to pay for the costs of the testing."

The Senate this month rejected a two-year moratorium on monitoring for the new list of 38 contaminants, but voted to let communities skip the quarterly tests for toxins that don't show up the first time.

It is unclear whether House leaders will accept the less frequent testing. The issue is now in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee.

Environmentalists and their supporters in Congress say the new standards and tests are long overdue and will cost far less than what rural water systems fear.

"It would be wonderful if we could tell them that safe drinking water could be theirs without any effort, without any investment, at no additional cost. But that sadly is not the case," said Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn.

The toxins on the list include a number of widely used pesticides that have been known to contaminate rivers and underground water supplies.