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Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Delay in clearing water well contamination frustrates officials

May 20, 2002

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— As Mayor Sharon Owen sees it, the situation is fairly simple the federal government contaminated the town's main water well, and now it needs to make things right.

"I just think it needs to be cleaned up. They said they would clean it up, and they need to do what they said they were going to do," said Owen, in her 13th year as mayor.

Carbon tetrachloride, which has been found at unsafe levels in Frankfort's main water well, can cause liver, kidney and lung damage in humans.

"Maybe I'm naive to think this, but I trust them to follow through with what they said they would do," she added.

But David Staley, the town's water manager, isn't quite so sure.

"You would think they would come in and take care of the problem. They would rather come in and make a show," Staley said. "Honestly, I'm real close to giving up on them."

In 1986, tests showed the town's main well on the corner of the city golf course was contaminated by carbon tetrachloride, a substance that can cause liver, kidney and lung damage in humans.

During the years, this northeast Kansas town of about 850 has used two backup wells and the water from them always has tested clean, Staley said.

"Nobody has gotten sick from it. Right now, there is no health risk," Staley said.

He said the contamination could be traced to two Quonset huts and 90 storage bins that once stood north of town. They were part of a grain storage program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Commodity Credit Corp. between 1940 and the early 1970s.

At one time, it was the USDA's largest grain storage site in Kansas. Now, only the two huts remain along with the residue of underground contamination.

To keep rodents out of the tons of stored grain, a fumigant was used which seemed like a good idea at the time. But there was a problem: The fumigant was laced with carbon tetrachloride.

During the years, the chemical seeped through the grain and into the ground. From there, it found its way into the groundwater beneath the town, not to be discovered until the 1980s.

Unsafe drinking water

Water containing the chemical in excess of five parts per billion is above acceptable safe levels for drinking set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Frankfort is among 25 sites on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's list of where public and private wells have been contaminated by carbon tetrachloride, most likely from the old grain storage sites. Among the 25 sites, six involve public wells like Frankfort.

None of those sites currently pose an immediate public health risk because the contaminated wells no longer are used.

In some cases, there have been replacement wells; in others, water comes from other sources such as rural water district pipelines.

Rick Bean, chief of the remedial section for KDHE's Bureau of Environmental Remediation, claims USDA hasn't done anything about cleaning up the contamination.

"They will hook up a new safe drinking water supply, but the contamination is still there and not addressed," Bean said.

"To date none of these sites have had a cleanup by USDA where similar sites contaminated by private industry have been cleaned up," he said.

Contamination risks

Bean said KDHE's concern is Frankfort and other areas have contaminated plumes of underground water which could migrate over the years and contaminate other wells.

The contamination levels of the plume under Frankfort range from 121 parts per billion near the old storage site to 19 parts per billion near the contaminated well. Bean said the well itself is six parts per billion but would be higher if it was pumping.

In Washington, the USDA's Steve Gilmore has worked on the contamination problem in Kansas for 18 months. He urged patience, saying the agency is working closely with the state.

"You can't make a decision without the information to make a decision," Gilmore said. "We make a recommendation and it's not something done in a short period."

The mayor said USDA wants to replace the contaminated well with a new one, although state and federal officials haven't reached agreement on when that might occur.

"We don't want to run out of water. We had three wells, and we want to get back to three wells," Owen said. "We didn't contaminate it. We didn't ruin it."

Possible solutions

Still being checked are ways to deal with the contaminated plume. Gilmore, who met with town officials in February, said he hopes to have some options ready this summer.

One possibility is removing water from the ground and running it through an air stripper unit. That would expose it to air, causing the carbon tetrachloride to evaporate. Another option might involve using a carbon filtration system to make the water safe.

Overall, Staley sees only one option.

"Their idea of taking care of it isn't our idea of taking care of it," Staley said. "Get the plume out of there. This is a decision that is going to last past my lifetime, past my children's lifetime."

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