Backus: Family who discovered contamination waits on city water

by Travis Grimler, originally posted on October 26, 2016


Only paperwork separated the Dwire family, who lives just outside the Backus city limits, from selling their home of 11 years and moving. That was until Destery Dwire woke up to find their sand point well was dry.

“We put it on the market about a year ago, then it sold right before the well went out (Memorial Day weekend),” said Randee Dwire. “We had all the papers signed and the agreement. The guy came over to do the inspection and things started to go bad. Destery got up to take a shower in the morning and the water wasn’t working.”

Because the home would never sell without water, a new well was planned.

“I was going to put another sand point well in and we found out you can’t sell a home on an RD (Rural Development) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) loan with a sand point,” Destery said. “I decided to improve the property and had a well company come in and drill.”

“(The driller) called me at work,” Randee said. “He said we’d have water when I got home that night. I’d be able to shower in my own house. I thought that was awesome. He called me about 15 minutes later with bad news. He said, ‘Your water smells like fuel.'”

Once the family well had been dug, however, Randee said the smell of fuel alerted the entire neighborhood. The Dwire’s new well revealed water contamination that, until that point, nobody was aware of, not even a property at the end of the street that had a well at the same depth.

“There was another well about a block, a block and a half south of the Dwires’ that was almost identical depth to their new well and had about identical impacts,” said Craig Schafer, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) emergency response specialist. “There is nobody currently living there; the two people who lived there are deceased. That well has almost identical impacts to the Dwire well. That well will also be taken out of service.”

“We came to find out the Thalers had been drinking that water,” Randee said.

Most of the neighborhood wells were sand point with contamination running at a lower depth, so only the two deep wells were affected.

“The impacts are in the groundwater table from the mid depth in the upper 40 foot to about 55 feet below the surface,” Schafer said.

Another deep well was identified, but showed no signs of contamination.

“There was one other well at that depth east of what is kind of a night club,” Schafer said. “We sampled that one but it is clear.”

Using samples from all over the city, the MPCA has discovered the likely source of the contamination, a property formerly used as a gas station where Schafer said fuel tanks were likely removed in the 1980s. After that time, contamination from the tanks appears to have dropped straight down until it reached a water table, and then moved with the flow toward the Dwire residence.

“There is a plume about a block and a half by two blocks that is kind of between the main intersection where (Highway) 87 goes from west to south and from there southeast and kind of towards the Dwires’ and a little further south from there about a block is what we delineated,” Schafer said. “The depth is pretty consistent. That’s about the size of it. We believe that it’s a legacy release from a tank probably removed in the 1980s. From what we can tell, before the current tank program was put into place so they were fairly unregulated at the time.”

Schafer said the contamination has been identified as leaded gasoline.

“It was from the former Skelly gas station,” Schafer said. “It’s now a repair shop. Of course the repair shop had nothing to do with it. They’re just the current property owner.”

Schafer said the plume is consistent, localized and moving slowly toward the river. Because of its depth, there doesn’t appear to be any surface contamination and there are no vapors. Even the city water supply appears to be untouched.

“The city wells are about 105 feet and 150 feet, I believe,” Schafer said. “The primary well is at 105 and that shows no impact. That is consistent with the investigation we did to delineate the extent of the flow.”

The plume is also moving away from the city wells, meaning the city will soon be an option for those who live in the Dwire’s neighborhood, especially if other wells fail since new wells will be forbidden to prevent spreading contamination.

After the discovery, the Dwire family was forbidden from drilling more wells, and they did not dare use their new $7,000 deep well.

“Thankfully our neighbor, Gary, is allowing us to run a hose from their yard to our yard so we can have some water for now, but the temperature is getting cold,” Randee said. “We froze up the other night for the first time.”

The Dwires are at the mercy of the state, who will be paying for expanding the city water under Highway 87 and into their neighborhood, but the process is slow, with frost moving in and their only water supply freezing.

“It’s been a real pain,” Randee said. “We would have been out of that house by now. Now, what are we going to do? Who is going to want to buy that home? This has been going on since Memorial weekend, and we haven’t been able to have it on the market all summer long. That time was wasted. We had promises to our son. We were going to have a pool. It’s little things. It might not be a big deal, but it is.”

During an October meeting, the Backus City Council also showed impatience with the progress of the project. It is, however, moving forward.

“The project has made it through initial project design, which includes plans being approved by the Department of Health,” Schafer said. “They regulate the water supply systems. That part is done. … Once we had the plans all approved we went to the Department of Administrations and put it out on bids. It’s out on bids right now and the bid opening, I believe, is just a couple weeks down the line. Then hopefully we will be able to award the successful bidder right away and get it going. Our hope is mid-November or the end of November at the latest.”

Schafer said the pace was also frustrating him, though not as much as it frustrated the Dwires.

“The problem is that right now the Dwires are on a very temporary water supply option that doesn’t like the cold weather very much,” Schafer said. “That’s been problematic. They’ve had to endure some pretty ridiculous options to maintain it. It’s at no fault of their own that they came onto this. That’s the hard part.”

Schafer said that microbes in the soil will eventually attenuate or decay the contamination, but underground there is little oxygen and no ultra violet sunlight, so the process is slower than with surface contamination.

Once the city water is extended into the Dwires’ neighborhood, Schafer will pass off monitoring to another project manager in Brainerd. That department will then monitor the plume and its migration in the future. That department will also determine if there are any actions that need to be taken to remediate the contamination.

In the meantime, the Dwires have no choice but to wait for the water supply and repair to their lawn before they can put their property back on the market and move on.

“I just want the process to be done,” Destery said. “It just seems like it drags on. They keep coming up with excuses and it’s frustrating. I’m at my wit’s end.”

The MPCA used a list of wells reported to the state through licensed well drillers to determine if area wells were contaminated. If homeowners in the area of the contamination is concerned that their deep well might be unregistered with the state or contaminated, they are asked to contact the MPCA in Brainerd at 800-657-3864.

Learn More