About 12 percent of 616 private wells recently tested in upstate South Carolina contain uranium levels that exceed the safe drinking water standard, state health officials report.

Daphne Neel, of the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, told the South Carolina Budget and Control Board that, so far, 76 private wells exceeded the safe drinking water standard for uranium. In addition, 322 public wells have been tested and seven of those contained excessive uranium.

DHEC has advised all the public water system operators of the findings and the owners have been advised to notify their customers of the elevated uranium levels, Neel said. Follow-up sampling will take place on a routine basis, she said.

The state's dilemma, she said, is that many of the private wells are too isolated to extend public water lines to every one. Such water lines cost $100,000 per mile to build. About 1,000 new private wells are installed in South Carolina each month.

Neel said the state should consider providing funds to purchase point-of-use treatment systems for low-income residents whose water is unsafe to drink.

She showed the Budget and Control Board two such options: a $200 reverse osmosis system that can produce enough water to drink; and a $4,000 ion exchange system that can filter enough water for all household purposes. Reverse osmosis removes 99.9 percent of uranium and 97.2 percent of radon, while ion exchange removes 99.8 percent of uranium and 93.3 percent of radon.

But despite the merits of the point-of-use treatment systems, Neel said an educational campaign probably would be necessary to convince people to use the systems.

"The fear factor is quite high. Many people don't want to treat the water; they just don't want to use the well water at all," Neel said.

Neel also said the state should consider providing funds for tap-on fees for low-income families.

DHEC's Mike Gulledge said the state's request for about $2 million from Congress to complete South Carolina's $5.75 million response to the uranium contamination is still pending. He said the attacks of Sept. 11 and demands it will create on federal funds, increases the uncertainty about the money.

The state's plan includes $2 million for a geologic study, $500,000 for a public health investigation, $1.25 million for sampling, analysis, public education and low-income assistance, and $2 million for infrastructure.