Drops of crisis found in the drinking water of Orleans, New York

by Lewis Millholand, originally posted April 14, 2016


Citizens of Orleans, a small town in upstate New York, have suspected for a long time that the Department of Transportation’s nearby salt storage facilities have been contaminating their private wells. Fed up with her local government’s lackluster response, Orleans resident Stephanie Weiss called on the aid of Virginia Tech.

Weiss and her husband Andy Greene have lived in their current home for about 15 years and have received inconsistent results from testing their private well-fed tap water. Sometimes lead levels soared, sometimes not so much. But what they and the rest of the community were really looking at was salt in the aquifer — it was only after reading about the crisis in Flint, Michigan, that Weiss began to suspect lead contamination.

At that point, the next step was a no-brainer.

“Who did I reach out to?” Weiss said. “I guess I reached out to people who could help me answer that question. People like Marc.”

Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor and face of the Flint Water Study Team, has championed the charge to expose the corruption surrounding water contamination. He’s also advocated to improve water infrastructure across the country. As Edwards puts it, “Civilization as you know it can end if you don’t have a good operating water system.”

When Weiss reached out to Edwards, he put her in touch with Virginia Tech researcher Kelsey Pieper, who published a study last fall that revealed lead levels in 19 percent of Virginia’s tap water drawn from wells exceed the EPA action level.

The EPA standard is a guideline though, not a legal requirement, since the EPA does not have the authority to regulate private wells. This also means that there are not a lot of data available on well water quality, and there are no standardized sampling protocols. On top of that, because the wells are private, testing must be done with the explicit consent of the homeowner.

“A lot of my work relies on engaged homeowners. So I’ve worked with some really wonderful people,” Pieper said. “It’s a growing conversation. One of the things I always like to say is, we do a lot of developing work, and we still have struggles in the United States.”

The Virginia Tech team sent 126 water testing kits to the citizens of Orleans, and Pieper anticipates receiving the results toward the end of April. Those data will shed light on the specific problem in Orleans and determine whether or not high chloride levels from the road salt are causing plumbing materials to leak lead into the water supply.

Pieper, who admitted to “nerding out” over her father-in-law’s specialized septic tank, is glad the subject of water contamination has been thrust into the national consciousness. She traced this back to Virginia Tech’s actions in Flint.

“Because of Flint, people have become very aware and been better understanding what it means to have lead in water,” Pieper said. “What we’re doing is we’re providing an opportunity for homeowners to participate in water quality testing and increase their awareness about what their water quality looks like so they can be empowered to make changes.”

The Flint Water Study was born in June 2015 when Flint resident LeeAnn Walters’ son was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Weiss “can’t think of a worse way to find out we have a problem” than discovering lead in a child’s blood.

Thankfully, the situation hasn’t escalated quite that far in Orleans. According to Weiss, most of the residents don’t drink the water from their tap, instead opting for local spring water suppliers.

However, both cities are similar in that their governments did little to address the problem. The crisis in Flint led to the resignation of Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose and spurred calls for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI).

“We have a government that has not been responsive to its citizens because there’s a very strong likelihood that they caused the aquifer contamination,” Weiss said. “They have not, so far, fixed the problem.”

“Lead, just, it seems like it makes people crazy,” Edwards said. He has testified before Congress numerous times about the EPA’s rules on contaminated water. “Not people who are exposed to lead, but people who are supposed to protect us from it … Why have these environmental policemen turned into environmental criminals?”

According to Weiss, citizens of Orleans have been reaching out to their government for decades to address issues with the drinking water. The Orleans government, as of a few months ago, started supplying the town with clean drinking water from outside sources.

“I do feel like this is an opportunity for our government to make a choice about how to orient to an issue in general,” Weiss said. She hopes the town’s new connection to Virginia Tech will spur action. “I would hope that they would respond enthusiastically to try to help to figure out what their role is in the problem and own up to that, if necessary, and then to find solutions.”

As a citizen of a town with fewer than 3,000 residents, Weiss appreciated the prompt and involved response from a man who has testified before Congress and the aid of a university more than 10 times the size of her town.

“It’s very moving to deal with people who don’t care what your title is or what your role is or who you are, but just that you’re trying to do work for your community,” Weiss said. “I think that it’s easy to be cynical in this world of trying to get things done, of trying to get people to listen to you, and I feel like there is a real value to an institution that is responsive to people.”

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