Some Montgomery County water systems could get several thousand dollars through a class action settlement for systems that have detected traces of a particular pesticide in their water. Local water systems officials say they did not find enough of the chemical to be dangerous, but they can still file for payments.
Under the settlement, the pesticide company Syngenta will pay $105 million into a fund for water systems around the country that detected the herbicide atrazine in their water. Rockville’s mayor and council voted to include themselves in the settlement last month.
Craig Simoneau, Rockville’s director of public works, said joining the settlement made good business sense, but customers should not be worried about their water quality.
“There’s no health implications; it was a business decision on our part,” he said. Simoneau said the city is probably entitled to at least $5,000 from the settlement, although they won’t know for sure how much the city will get for several more months. The amount Rockville gets will probably depend on how many people apply for money through the settlement, how big their water systems are and how serious their atrazine problems are, he said.
Atrazine is used as a herbicide, but can work its way into water through runoff from row crops. Syngenta uses the chemical in several of its herbicides, including Gesaprim, Aatrex and Bicep II Magnum.
Ed Crow, an entomologist in the state Department of Agriculture’s pesticide regulation unit, said atrazine is commonly used for corn production.
“It is pretty widely used, not just here in Maryland, but across the nation,” he said.
In a 2004 survey issued by the U.S. and Maryland departments of agriculture, atrazine was the second most used herbicide in the state, in terms of the number of pounds used. Marylanders used an estimated 1.1 million pounds of atrazine that year.
Because of the concerns about atrazine getting into surface and groundwater, Crow said people who apply the herbicide have to be trained and certified in how to use it safely.
“There are concerns about surface and groundwater with a lot of the herbicides, not just the atrazine,” he said.
Maryland, like most states, relies on the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate pesticides, Crow said.
The maximum level for atrazine in drinking water set by the EPA is three parts per billion or 0.003 milligrams per liter. According to WSSC’s website, one part per billion is equivalent to one-half teaspoon of contaminant in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
According to the EPA, people who drink water with significantly more than the maximum level of atrazine for many years could have problems with their cardiovascular or reproductive systems.
From 2006 to 2012, Rockville city tested its water for atrazine 14 times and detected low levels of the chemical twice. The levels were so low, however, that the city didn’t have to do anything to remove the chemical.
“To some degree, it’s free money,” he said. “The only direct cost we have is the cost of our testing and the cost of preparing all this.”
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves most of Montgomery County, has also filed for a payment from the settlement, spokeswoman Lyn Riggins said in an email. WSSC has not detected the chemical on a regular basis, however. Riggins said the highest level of atrazine WSSC has detected was around 1.5 parts per billion.
“We see it in the spring, which coincides with the planting of corn since it is primarily used for weed control,” she said.
Wade Yost, Poolesville town manager, said Poolesville’s water system has not detected atrazine in the water. He said that is probably because the town uses groundwater from wells, while Rockville and WSSC use surface water from rivers.
“They receive water ... that runs off of fields and things, so that’s why they would have (atrazine),” Yost said.
The settlement stems from a suit filed by community water systems operators in six different states who argued that Syngenta should have to pay for testing for the herbicide and filtering it out of their water if necessary.
The company issued a statement in May saying it agreed to the settlement to end the business uncertainty and expense of continued litigation.
“Syngenta acknowledges no liability and continues to stand by the safety of atrazine,” the statement said.