June 22, 2008

Leaks in the System: Communication Problems Over Water Contamination Continue

By Greg Barnes, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Jun. 22--WADE -- Four months after Cumberland County formed its Safe Water Task Force, county and state officials continue to mishandle their response to groundwater contamination.

As a consequence, families in another small, rural neighborhood may unknowingly be drinking contaminated water.

In April, a county health inspector found an unsafe level of nitrates in Paul and Marie Overbee's well.

The Overbees and five other families live on Royal Williams Road, a dirt lane off Wade-Stedman Road that is surrounded by farms.

The inspector advised Marie Overbee -- who is more than eight months pregnant -- to stop using the water. But the inspector failed to notify a state division responsible for ensuring that the nitrates haven't contaminated surrounding wells.

What's more, a state toxicologist was supposed to have advised the Health Department on whether the Overbees' water was safe to drink. The Health Department never got the notice.

The Safe Water Task Force formed two days after a special report by The Fayetteville Observer found a disconnect between state and local officials who deal with groundwater contamination.

Task force members -- largely county and state health and water officials -- vowed then to improve the lines of communication. But the Overbees' situation shows that a lot of work remains.

State officials responded to the Overbees' neighborhood only after a reporter started asking questions Monday.

Friday, three months after the Overbees had their well water tested by the county, the state Aquifer Protection Section sent two technicians to reinspect their well and evaluate others in the neighborhood.

Paul and Marie Overbees' mobile home sits tucked away from view of people passing by on Wade-Stedman Road. It's one of six homes in a row, planted in the middle of a farm field. Most of the Overbees' neighbors are relatives. All enjoy their privacy.

The Overbees moved here -- three children in tow -- a couple of years back. From the outset, Marie Overbee said, she worried about their well water. At one point, she bought an inexpensive home-test kit from a big-box hardware store. The test showed elevated nitrates, but nothing that appeared serious, Paul Overbee said.

The Overbees continued to drink their water until February, when the Observer's special report revealed widespread groundwater contamination in the county.

Paul Overbee said the report prompted him to pay the Cumberland County Health Department to test his well for nitrates and pesticides.

Documents show that county health inspector Bob Ratliff sampled Overbee's water on March 19. On April 8, the state Health Lab finished a report showing that the Overbees' water contained more than 15 parts per million of nitrates. Anything above 10 parts per million is considered unsafe, especially for pregnant women and infants.

The tests also revealed a high concentration of an unidentified pesticide.

Ingestion of high levels of nitrates can cause "blue-baby syndrome," a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. The unborn and infants are particularly susceptible.

Ratliff and two other county health inspectors said Tuesday that they had found no contamination in private wells since late February, when the Observer's series resulted in a spike in requests from homeowners for well tests.

Ratliff -- who is relatively new to water inspections -- remembered the Overbees' well contamination only after being handed a Health Department folder documenting the tests.

He then acknowledged advising Marie Overbee to stop using her well water. A notation written by Ratliff on the report advises her "to go to the Internet & Yellow Pages of phone book for water purifier."

Technically, Ratliff said, he is not supposed to provide that advice because he is not an expert in the field. He said he did so largely because Marie Overbee is pregnant and he wanted to ensure her safety.

State toxicologists are supposed to send a recommendation to the county Health Departments on whether a home's well water is safe to drink. A state health official said the toxicologists usually send a letter to the homeowner "as a courtesy."

But, as the Observer's investigation found, the toxicologists don't always follow through.

The state's chief toxicologist, Dr. Ken Rudo, was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment. Rudo makes most of the recommendations.

Rudo's boss, Mina Shehee, said Dr. Rick Langley, a state physician who sometimes assists Rudo, contacted the Overbees by phone Tuesday and advised them against drinking their well water. Langley made the call after a reporter told him that the state had never notified the family.

The important thing, Shehee said, is that the family stopped drinking the water.

"You can rest assured that we are going to follow this up and follow the paper trail," she said. "We're going to investigate it."

Shehee said Friday that she could find no paperwork indicating that the state had notified the Health Department.

Marie Overbee said her family is not looking for sympathy or state help in getting rid of the nitrates.

"I feel like this was our responsibility all along," she said.

She said her father-in-law drilled the well in the 1980s. The well was not grouted -- a cement casing around the well pipe to guard against surface contamination -- as is now required by law. The Health Department wasn't notified about the well, so it did not go through the normal permitting process. Other wells in the neighborhood were constructed in similar fashion.

The Overbees said they have warned their neighbors, but most continue to drink the water.

Wednesday, the Health Department asked the state's Aquifer Protection Section to evaluate the Overbees' neighborhood to determine the extent of the contamination.

That work began Friday.

The state's apparent failure to notify the Overbees -- and Ratliff's failure to notify the Aquifer Protection Section -- suggests that communication between state and local agencies is still sorely lacking.

County health inspectors said Tuesday that it is entirely up to the state to notify people whose wells are contaminated.

"Rudo automatically gets this stuff. He is supposed to oversee" it and notify the homeowners, county health inspector Danny Ortiz said.

Ratliff added: "I don't see where that's our call to them. They already have the information right there. They have it faster than we do."

Shehee disagrees. She said Rudo is responsible for determining whether water is unsafe to drink and for passing that information on to the Health Department. The Health Department is responsible for notifying the homeowner, she said.

Shehee said Rudo reviews between 300 and 1,000 test results a week.

Danny Soles, who supervises the county health inspectors, said Ratliff should have reported the Overbees' contamination to the Aquifer Protection Section.

"I'll remedy that. That's my fault," said Soles, a member of the Safe Water Task Force. "If they don't know that, I should have told them."

In the past, the Aquifer Protection Section has found at least three Cumberland County neighborhoods with well contamination at multiple homes -- arsenic in the Windridge subdivision in Gray's Creek and nitrates in the Berry Tree Lane and Seabrook Estates neighborhoods near Stedman.

Art Barnhardt, supervisor of the section, said he normally learns of a contaminated well through the county Health Department or the well owner. Barnhardt said neither the state Health Lab nor Rudo, the toxicologist, automatically forward the information to his office.

"If they request our assistance, I'll be more than happy to help them out and do whatever we can," Barnhardt said Wednesday.

Jane Stevens, co-chairwoman of the Safe Water Task Force, praised the committee's work that led to the county Board of Commissioners agreeing Monday to hire an engineer to determine the cost of providing public water to contaminated areas.

The task force is also credited with getting the commissioners to commit $2.25 million in this year's budget for water improvements, and with beginning to develop a database of contaminated sites.

But Stevens, the Health Department's environmental health director, acknowledged that communication between county and state agencies could be better.

The task force has held three meetings since its formation in February. The media has been denied access to those meetings. Barnhardt, a task force member, said he has been invited to only one meeting.

The state's failure to notify the Overbees is reminiscent of a similar failure to notify Kim and Tony Voelker of contamination in their well. The Voelkers were profiled in the Observer's five-part series in February.

In 2006, the state discovered an excessive level of nitrates in the Voelkers' well and three others on Trimble Lane and Ellenbrook Drive. The dead-end streets, known collectively as Seabrook Estates, are on a former farm field near Stedman.

In May of that year, the Voelkers received a letter from the Aquifer Protection Section notifying them of the contamination. The letter said the test results would be sent to Rudo for his opinion on whether the water was safe to drink.

But the Voekers never heard back from the Aquifer Protection section or from Rudo. They assumed that their water was safe and kept drinking it. The Voelkers and their children -- the youngest is 5 -- stopped drinking the water in November, when a reporter told them it may still be contaminated.

In January, the state retested the Voelkers well and found unsafe levels of nitrates. Nearly two years after the nitrates were first detected, the state officially advised the Voelkers against drinking their well water.

In March, Barnhardt said he hoped to find state money to either drill a new well for the Voelkers or pay for their bottled water.

The Voelkers were given an application to determine if they qualified for money from the fledgling Bernard Allen Memorial Emergency Drinking Water Fund. The family's annual income allowed them to qualify easily.

But Barnhardt said the officials who control the fund's purse strings decided that the Voelkers were not entitled to fund money because their contamination stems from an improperly constructed well.

"It was a tough policy call, very tough," Barnhardt said.

He said the grout casings in the Voelkers' well and seven others in the neighborhood are less than the 20-foot depth required by the state.

Records show that county health inspectors signed off on the wells when they were constructed in the mid-1990s.

Instead of paying to fix the Voelkers' well or pay for their bottled water, the state has decided to go after the owner of the defunct company that built the eight homes and the man who drilled the wells.

Barnhardt said he and other state officials have met with the home builder, Earlisle Jones, and the well driller, J.T. Lewis.

"There was no indication for them to work with us at that point in time," Barnhardt said.

So the state is taking the matter to the next level. Barnhardt said it is preparing to find Lewis and Jones in violation of state law and fine them up to $1,000 for every day that the violation continues.

Jones and Lewis are protesting the state's claims. In a letter to Barnhardt and environmental technician Bill Todd, they say that the county Health Department approved the wells and that state law allows for an exception to grout casings of less than 20 feet.

"This work was done over 13-15 years ago," the letter says. "The request ... that Mr. Earlise Jones and Mr. J.T. Lewis bring the above-mentioned wells into compliance is unreasonable and unethical."

Barnhardt acknowledges that the case could be headed for litigation. And there is no guarantee that the Voelkers' well or the other seven will ever be fixed. The only thing for sure is that the Voelkers will not get any money from potential fines. Under state law, that money must go to education.

"I do not, in any way, shape or form, like the outcome for the individuals," Barnhardt said.

The Voelkers' case may illustrate not just a lack of communication between agencies, but a lack of communication within the Aquifer Protection Section itself.

Todd works directly under Barnhardt as an environmental technician. Tuesday, Todd incorrectly told the Voelkers that the state would be paying for their bottled water through the Bernard Allen fund.

"I did say that," Todd acknowledged. "But I'm sorry, I misinterpreted it."

Todd said he was unaware that the Voelkers had been denied money from the Bernard Allen fund.

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3525.


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