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Report finds Erie County drinking water violations in rural areas

The discoloration and stink of the tap water at Raymond Becker’s mobile home come and go.

So do the advisories not to drink it – sometimes for weeks at a time.

It has been this way for 13 years. The 68-year-old retired DuPont laboratory technician stores a few gallons of bottled water in a kitchen corner for cooking and brushing his teeth. He lets the water run for a while before doing the wash. And every few weeks to a month, Becker routinely swaps out a richly brown-stained cylindrical water filter for a bright new white one.

Becker doesn’t live in Flint, Mich. The Town of Wales resident just shares some of the same experiences.

“We had the health department out here,” Becker said. “I showed her the brown water and she tested for contamination at that time. She said, ‘this water was good enough to drink.’ So, I told her, ‘you drink it.’ But, she wouldn’t.”

The Circle Courts mobile home park on Reiter Road gets water from a well on-site. It is one of three spots in Erie County cited by a Natural Resources Defense Council report last week. The report details health threats in tap water across nearly 5,000 community water systems nationwide.

The other two local spots are in Lawtons and Gowanda.

The Natural Resources Defense Council relied on 2015 water sampling data in its report and concluded a disproportionate number of violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act are in rural America.

The NRDC’s “Threats of Tap” report found water systems “serving less than 500 people accounted for nearly 70 percent of all violations and a little over half of all health-based violations.”

That is happening because of inadequate enforcement of existing drinking water laws and insufficient upgrades to aged and failing water infrastructure, it said.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC’s health program director and an author of the report. “We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”

Circle Courts

A dozen total violations were noted at the Circle Courts mobile home park where Becker lives that could have involved improper testing, inadequate reporting or violations that could have direct impacts on human health.

Two of the violations included excess levels of disinfection byproducts.

Details on the other violations were not included. Erie County Health Department officials were not available to comment this week on the nature of the violations.

The report did not surprise Becker, who bought his 12,000-square-foot mobile home in the park in 2004. He paid $33,000 for the unit and pays $300 monthly rent for the site. Water is included.

Becker raised complaints about the water quality to the property owners first – and then the health department.

The problems he experienced included water pouring from the tap in a brown or rusty red color.

Often it could also have a sulfur, rotten-egg scent or smell like chlorine, he said.

“I’m concerned about it,” he said. “I love it out here. Probably my biggest sticking point is the water.”

After nearly a half-century under the same family’s ownership, the mobile home park was sold last summer to Scott Warning, the owner of an East Aurora electrical company.

Warning was aware of the water quality concerns at the site.

“They’re shallow wells. With shallow wells, we’ve got some groundwater that can affect that,” Warning said. “It is on-and-off a problem.”

Warning, who's working with the county's environmental health officials, said the water filtration system and getting proper chlorine levels are his chief aims.

“We’ve been cleaning it up,” Warning said. “Right now, our readings are better. It’s safe to drink.”

With Reiter Road straddling the towns of Aurora and Wales, some like Becker hoped municipal water might make its way from nearby East Aurora.

That hasn’t happened.

In fact, surveys by the town showed most Wales residents preferred to keep their wells. Town officials said there are no plans to develop public water.

The water quality reports at Circle Courts never bothered Barbara Fuller, a resident of the mobile home park for 49 years.

“It’s well water. What are you going to do?” Fuller asked. “I drink right out of the tap. My kids did too.”

Fuller thinks it’s actually improved in recent years.

“I can see a difference,” she said. “The taste is better.”

Becker said a sand filtration system was installed at the park a few years back.

He acknowledges that it seemed to help.

“Has the water been better than five years ago? Yes,” Becker said. “But, better than what?”

When the water’s “running bad,” he has to cancel overnight visits by his grandchildren.

He showers and washes with the water, but only drinks, cooks or brushes his teeth with bottled water.

And Becker’s home is on a steady diet of water filters from Home Depot – two for $11.

Becker recovered from cancer in 2005 that left him with one kidney. He also suffers from an enlarged prostate, diabetes and other health issues.

He’s not taking any chances.

“It says to me, ‘I don’t want to drink this, I only got one kidney left,' ” Becker said. “Are there medical issues? Maybe not now, but 10 or 20 years down the line – who knows?”

Lawtons

Fallout from the Flint water crisis could end up helping places like Lawtons, a small rural hamlet in the town of North Collins.

That’s because funding clean water projects, especially in low-income communities, has become a national priority.

Buffalo’s relief effort helping Flint residents

The NRDC report cited five violations by the Lawtons Water Co. in 2015, including two that could affect human health.

Those included readings of excessive nitrates in the water supply.

Lawtons has known about the problems for a long time.

Like Circle Courts, the nearly century-old well that tapped a productive spring is shallow – about 28 feet – and is particularly vulnerable to contamination from ground water.

In Lawtons’ case, it’s suspected to originate from a nearby farm field. Nitrogen run-off may be resulting in the nitrates spikes in the water, according to an engineering report.

Nitrates in water have been linked to “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that can affect infants by decreasing oxygen supplies in their blood, and as a marker for other agricultural contaminants, including micro-organisms and pesticides, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Reports of high nitrate readings were logged several years ago. Paying to fix them was another story: especially in a spot with less than 40 users.

An engineering report cites three possible alternatives. They include connecting to the Seneca Nation of Indians water supply, at a cost of $550,000 and a $1 million upgrade to its current water supply. Connecting with the Seneca Nation would need that nation's approval.

 

The Lawtons Water District was formed Tuesday by a vote of the 95 or so residents served by the Lawtons Water Co.

“The community is understanding of the problem. They understand the costs. They know we need to do something with it,” said Thomas Wilder, who’s run the water company for about 25 years. “If you don’t have potable water, it’s pretty hard to sell your house, which is a pretty large investment.”

Gowanda

On-again, off-again flooding and drought in Gowanda continued affecting water sources and supply quality for village residents on both the Erie and Cattaraugus county sides of Cattaraugus Creek.

In 2015, and 2016, it was barium levels over the maximum limit allowable by law for safe drinking water. Long-term exposure to barium can result in high blood pressure.

In early 2015, Gowanda water tested high for barium.

On July 28, 2016, slightly-elevated levels of barium were detected in a well that supplies village water, according to Dr. Kevin Watkins, Cattaraugus County’s health director.

That’s left Gowanda Public Works Superintendent Jason Opferbeck’s team blending water from its well and spring-fed supply sources to bring the levels down into compliance. Opferbeck said the barium is derived from natural deposits.

Gowanda water called safe after slightly elevated levels of barium detected

Opferbeck prepared the village’s most recent annual water quality report this week.

He reported Gowanda was in compliance with the federal safe drinking water threshold.

“As long as the well’s barium numbers come in over the EPA levels, they will have to continue to blend,” Watkins said.

Outside of Erie County

Other water service communities outside of Erie County were also cited by the NRDC report for violations posting threats to human health:

• Allegany County: Hume-Sandford Water Supply, one violation for groundwater contamination; Val-E-Vue Court, four violations for arsenic levels; Alfred State College, one violation of the lead and copper rule.

• Cattaraugus County: Cattaraugus Village, one violation for disinfection byproducts; Randolph Town Water District, one violation for groundwater contamination; the Crystal Water Co. in West Valley, two violations for groundwater contamination and disinfection byproducts.

• Genesee County: Oakfield Village, one violation for disinfection byproducts.

• Orleans County: Albion Village, one violation for disinfection byproducts; Shelby Town water district, two violations for disinfection byproducts; Murray Town water districts, two violations in northern part and one violation in southern part for coliform contamination.

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