Well contamination problem resurfaces at Granger subdivision
Officials wrestle with fixes for Granger subdivision wells
-by Jeff Parrott, originally posted on April 24, 2016
GRANGER — In 1989, just a few years after the development of Juday Creek Estates subdivision, residents learned some unsettling news about their newly built homes.
Their wells had been contaminated by chlorides that leached into the groundwater from a road salt pile at the St. Joseph County Highway Department garage, located across Cleveland Road from the subdivision.
The county spent at least $300,000 to test wells and drill two interceptor pumps to divert the groundwater flow away from the homes, discharging it safely into the adjacent golf course retention pond and creek.
For a couple of years, the county provided free bottled water to about a dozen homes in the subdivision, and by 1992 a consultant declared the wells chloride-free and the pumps were shut off.
But more than 24 years later, residents are again dealing with the same problem. In 2014, as the city of Mishawaka was considering buying part of the Juday Creek golf course for development of a wellfield, a test well found high chloride levels, said Mark Espich, the county health department’s specialist for water issues.
In August 2014, the health department started testing in the neighborhood and found high chloride levels in the wells of 12 homes and the golf course clubhouse, Espich said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set 250 mg/l as the secondary maximum contaminant level for chloride in drinking water. The two highest levels found in the homes were 949 mg/l and 891 mgl/l, while the clubhouse measured 573 mgl/l.
Chloride is one of 15 water contaminants that the EPA has classified as “secondary,” meaning they affect odor, taste or color, and can damage appliances, but do not pose a health threat. The standards are not enforceable by the federal agency but are voluntary guidelines.
In the last several months, the county has spent more than $26,000 on sampling, analysis and installation of reverse osmosis systems to filter out chlorides in the 12 homes, and plans to also provide one to the clubhouse, according to records provided by county engineer Jessica Clark. Mishawaka-based Midwest Clean Water, a Culligan franchise, has been contracted by the county to maintain the systems, changing their filters periodically, over the next five years.
The county now wants to test 14 homes around the perimeter of the identified chloride plume. At a recent meeting, commissioners approved hiring the same firm that did the earlier work, Goshen-based Roberts Environmental Services, to sample wells over the next two years.
Looking ahead, the county may even consider closing the garage.
County officials stressed that the chloride does not pose a health threat unless a person has been prescribed a low-salt diet. The filters have been installed because the water tastes salty at levels above 250 mg/l, they said.
“Long-term exposure to drinking this all the time, we’re not sure how this affects health, so it’s just better to provide a fresh water source,” Espich said.
Typical chloride levels for an area as densely populated as the subdivision, with homes containing water softeners that discharge into septic fields, are about 50 mg/l, Espich said.
How it happened
The highway garage site, built in 1975, stored its road salt in the open air, with no pad underneath, until 1986. For those 11 years, rain hit the pile, allowing the salt to leach into the groundwater. Since 1986, the salt has been stored in a building.
Since that problem was addressed so long ago, Espich said, the new contamination might have resulted from highway workers failing to sweep up salt that spilled while it was loaded and unloaded.
“The main issue was not cleaning up afterward,” said Espich, adding that workers began to correct the problem this past winter.
Espich said the health department has recommended that the highway department close the garage. The department is studying how best to use all six of its garages, as part of a department restructuring, and expects to have results from that study in July.
“The Cleveland site is one of the ones we’re looking at because it’s landlocked. It’s really not an optimal site for how highway functions have grown throughout the years,” Clark said. “So it may be something that we end up not utilizing, for the salt storage or any of our material storage.”
Clark said Juday Creek Estates residents aren’t excited about having the issue “ ‘get out’ because they fear their property values could be damaged.”
Indeed, Roger Lamm, president of the Juday Creek Estates Homeowners Association, declined to comment when contacted by The Tribune.
Several of his neighbors confirmed the county had recently paid to have reverse osmosis systems installed in their homes, but they declined to be identified.
Still, the law requires them to disclose the contamination to anyone who buys their properties.
“It’s pretty upsetting, but they didn’t hesitate to come in and put in the reverse osmosis,” one homeowner said. “But I feel like it’s been hidden. We moved here to expect a good home. This is a good home in a good area. It’s just upsetting that we have stuff flowing through our water and were not made aware of it.”
Neighbor Lisa Ludwig, who operates an in-home day care, said the county tested her well last fall and found no problems. The family typically drinks bottled water anyway, she said.
“I was relieved that it’s not contaminated,” Ludwig said, “just knowing it’s safe if we need to drink it.”