Residents Face Challenges in Resolving Well Water Contamination

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water dispute
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Article courtesy of Marshall Helmberger | October 14, 2015 | Timberjay | Shared as educational material

SHAGAWA LAKE—Differences between the city of Ely and Morse Township may pose a challenge to a handful of residents along Brisson’s Point who want city water they say is necessary to adequately address a long-standing contamination problem.

At least three wells on the point, located just west of the U.S. Forest Service’s seaplane base, were apparently contaminated in the 1970s and 1980s by the Wittrup family, which operated a dry cleaning establishment in Ely at the time.

The family lived on Brisson’s Point and evidence discovered at the site in 2003 indicated that they had been illegally dumping highly toxic dry cleaning solvents on the property, apparently for years.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency first discovered the contamination while doing soil sampling for suspected fuel contamination at a neighboring property with an underground tank. While the tests found no evidence of fuel contamination, they did show hazardous levels of perchloroethylene, or PERC, for short, which is commonly used in the dry cleaning industry.

Subsequent investigation by the MPCA found that the dumping had contaminated at least three residential wells, including one on the former Wittrup property as well as on two neighboring properties, one owned by the late Albert Leustek and the other by Charles and Bonnie Berglund.

The MPCA advised affected property owners not to drink their water and paid to install and maintain expensive carbon filtration systems at their residences. While those filters have lowered the PERC concentrations to levels considered safe, most residents on the point say they still don’t drink the water. The MPCA declared the point a state superfund site last year.

Barb Berglund, who now lives in the house once owned by her late grandfather, Albert Leustek, has been trying for years to convince the city of Ely to extend municipal water to the point so residents have a safe source of drinking water. Currently the city water line ends at the seaplane base, and the line would need to be extended about 2,000 feet beyond that point.

Berglund was back before the city council and the town board earlier this month, seeking a feasibility study to determine the cost of extending water lines to the affected properties. While both city and township officials express some sympathy for the residents’ plight, the ongoing turf battle surrounding annexation has complicated the search for a solution.

At the council meeting last week, Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said city policy requires annexation in order to extend city utilities to outlying properties. Township officials, on the other hand, note that a 1973 agreement between the city and the township prohibits any other annexations along that end of Shagawa Lake.

The town board, last week, did agree to set up a committee with city, township, and public utilities representation, to explore a possible solution, which would likely center on locating a feasible source of project funding.

With the designation of the area as a superfund site, the MPCA would likely be able to fund a significant percentage of the cost of extending a water line to the affected properties.

Yet other factors further complicate the issue, according to Ely City Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski. While the city’s water lines currently extend to the seaplane base, that three-inch line is too small to service the additional homes on the point, said Langowski.

That means any extension would need to include replacing the current water service to the seaplane base with a larger pipe— and that’s an improvement that the MPCA is less likely to fund. Langowski said the city had hoped the Forest Service might have funds to help cover the cost of the upgrade, but that now appears unlikely, particularly since the Forest Service only leases the seaplane base.

At the same time, others residents living near the seaplane base have non-compliant or failing septic systems, which Langowski said argues for extending sewer lines as well as part of the project.

Adding further complication is the fact that residents in the area are split on whether annexation is a good idea. For those whose wells have tested free of PERC, the effect of annexation by the city would be largely limited to stricter zoning requirements and a significant increase in property taxes. Berglund said she anticipates a near doubling of her taxes, but still thinks it’s worthwhile in her circumstance.

Clean-up unlikely

Several studies at the site of the contamination suggest clean-up would be extremely difficult. “There’s fractured bedrock at the surface,” said Eric Pederson, the MPCA’s project manager on the site. Well water contamination. “The contamination goes deep.”

That’s one reason that the agency has focused on providing an ongoing source of potable water to the residents, rather than clean-up. At this point, studies suggest that the risk of contaminating Shagawa Lake or other wells to any significant degree is quite low.

MPCA officials say the carbon filters installed at the affected residences are providing safe drinking water, but that’s slim comfort to residents, who continue to rely on outside water for cooking and drinking.

It’s also a problem for Bonnie Berglund (no relation to Barb Berglund), whose well shows the highest concentrations of PERC. Berglund, who is elderly, is looking to sell her residence, but the impact of a contaminated well on the value of the property could well be significant. Berglund’s daughter, Lisa DeRosier, said her parents put their life savings into building their retirement dream home after purchasing the property in 1993.

For ten years, the couple drank the water from their well before the MPCA testing nearby revealed the problem. DeRosier said her father suffered with health problems for years, first with kidney and liver cancer, and finally with pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life in 2014. “We’re pretty sure in our hearts and souls that my dad got cancer from those chemicals,” she said. The federal Environmental Protection Agency lists PERC as a carcinogen, and indicates that it can affect both kidney and liver function in people with prolonged exposure.

Barb Berglund noted that a former resident, who purchased the Wittrup property, also died after an extended fight with cancer. “All these horrible things happened at the same time,” she said.

While evidence points to illegal disposal of the toxic chemicals by the Wittrups, Pederson said there’s little hope of getting any compensation from them for the damage they caused. He noted that the family left the area years ago. “They went to the Carolinas somewhere,” he said.

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