News Writing Sample

Chase Elementary School Investigating Possible Well Contamination

Oconto County Times-Herald
November 9, 2011

By Patrick Baird
Special to the Times Herald

The source of well water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in the Town of Chase, or even if such con­t­a­m­i­na­tion exists, is still unknown accord­ing to state and fed­eral regulators.

Representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a pub­lic hear­ing at Sunnyside Elementary School in Chase last week.  Students at Sunnyside have been using bot­tled water for over a year due to con­cerns about the safety of the school’s well.

The organic con­t­a­m­i­nant in ques­tion is Di (2-ethylhexyl) phtha­late or DEHP, which was first detected in sig­nif­i­cant amounts dur­ing a rou­tine pub­lic water sys­tem com­pli­ance test for Sunnyside in June, 2010. DEHP is found in many plas­tics and does not occur nat­u­rally. It can make its way into ground water after leach­ing out of plas­tics in land­fills, in PVC plumb­ing, or from items uti­lized for many other purposes.

According to Kevin Bahr, Facilities Director for Pulaski Community Schools, DEHP was first detected at Sunnyside in 2007 but due to low con­cen­tra­tions no follow-up was required. The sam­ple detected in June 2010, was 38 micro­grams per liter (ug/L); the EPA’s max­i­mum con­t­a­m­i­nant level for DEHP in drink­ing water is 6 ug/L.  In July, 2010, addi­tional follow-up sam­ples tested above 6 ug/L. He added that a total of 37 sam­ples have been col­lected from Sunnyside, with vari­able results.

Bahr said that, begin­ning in August, 2010, the dis­trict replaced exist­ing equip­ment, includ­ing a sub­mersible well pump, pump motor, elec­tri­cal cable, and gal­va­nized drop pipe. They also flushed out and vac­u­umed out the well. Equipment upgrade and replace­ment con­tin­ued through September, 2011; sam­ples taken after lat­est updates still detected DEHP, but in con­cen­tra­tions under 6 ug/L.

Greg Moeller of the DNR told the crowd that twelve res­i­den­tial wells were tested in the imme­di­ate area of the school in August and September, 2011. DEHP was detected in two wells in the ini­tial sam­ples, one of which was over the 6 ug/L level. When re-tested in September nei­ther home had a DEHP detec­tion, but other wells detected low amounts of the contaminant.

Regulators were not able to pro­vide an answer as to the source of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion or when or if water would be declared safe to drink, which frus­trated some res­i­dents and school offi­cials. School District Superintendent Mel Lightner asked Moeller directly: “We really don’t know what’s going on, do we?” Moeller replied: “That’s correct.”

Rob Thiboldeaux of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reas­sured the crowd about the find­ings of the tests. “Although this chem­i­cal has been found, from time to time, in lev­els that are above the legal enforce­ment stan­dard, in the water at the school and in other wells in the area, we do not expect any­one to become ill from drink­ing this water.” He indi­cated that DEHP had caused ill­ness in lab ani­mals but there was no sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on what threat, if any, DEHP posed to humans.

A local rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the EPA, Kathy Halbur, explained to res­i­dents that addi­tional well test­ing was going to take place this month, with the spe­cific intent of try­ing to elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of lab error and to gather more infor­ma­tion. She was not sure if results would be avail­able for the next pub­lic hear­ing, sched­uled for November 28.

Private home­own­ers were encour­aged to con­duct their own tests on well water and were given guid­ance by speak­ers on how to con­duct the tests and han­dle the sam­ples before send­ing them to labs. Moeller told res­i­dents that they were not required to share results with the EPA or DNR, but he encour­aged them to do so to aid in deter­min­ing the cause and extent of the contamination.

A spe­cial web­site has been set up by the EPA to pro­vide the pub­lic infor­ma­tion on the sit­u­a­tion: http://www.epaosc.org/chasedehp

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