Lynnwood Estates Water customers seek answers

Tap water coming into homes contains 91 parts per billion of arsenic

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COEUR d'ALENE - Twice every month, Julie Grimes drives to Walmart and buys 20 gallons of fresh water.

It costs about $15 per trip.

"We use that to cook with, and eat and drink, and wash our vegetables and fruit," Grimes said.

She and her husband, Don, live on Roberts Road near Athol. The tap water that flows into their home, piped from a nearby well, contains an unhealthy level of arsenic - 91 parts per billion, according to a test last month.

That's 9 times the maximum arsenic level allowed by the federal government, 10 ppb.

Grimes' water is undrinkable, and she wants it fixed.

"Now we're talking levels that are much more serious. Much more carcinogenic," she said. "If we were going to try to sell this place, it's valueless."

Lynnwood Estates Water Association, a nonprofit water system, owns the contaminated well. It sits on private property on the east side of Highway 95, about one mile north of Athol.

More than 20 properties are on the water system, Grimes said, which is regulated by Panhandle Health District. About 18 homes are currently using the well water.

The arsenic problem is confined to a relatively small area, and is not affecting the drinking water of Athol itself.

"We've been waiting for (the Department of Environmental Quality) to look into what's causing the arsenic," said Jay Gridley, president of the Lynnwood association. "I think you could drink it without it making you ill, but prolonged use would not be advisable."

Arsenic contamination within the Lynnwood system is nothing new. The well registered arsenic levels above 10 parts per billion in the mid 1990s, a DEQ press release said.

Back then, however, the federal limit was 50 ppb (it would be reduced to 10 ppb in 2006).

In April 2010, the well exceeded the annual arsenic average for the first time, DEQ said. The following fall, Lynnwood's water registered 9.8 ppb, flirting with the federal maximum.

But the arsenic problem has grown much worse in recent months, and the numbers have spiked this spring.

On June 10, two days after the well hit 91 ppb, a system operator hand-delivered a paper notice to all of the homes on the system.

It warned families not to drink the water.

"Our property, at this time, is absolutely worthless," said Bob Campbell, who lives in the affected area.

He buys Culligan drinking water, and consumes about 25 gallons every two weeks. Like every family on the Lynnwood system, Campbell receives a monthly water bill - usually $36 or so, he said.

Instead of paying full price for contaminated H2O, he deducts the money he spends on Culligan water.

Grimes said she plans to deduct her extra water costs, too.

"I didn't know we could do that, because nothing was said," she added. "(The association is) making no effort to let the customers know they can do that."

Gridley declined to comment on the billing situation.

DEQ, PHD and Lynnwood Estates are working to find a solution, the agencies said. DEQ is gathering data from the well site, trying to determine whether the arsenic contamination is naturally occurring or caused by humans.

Arsenic does naturally appear in some areas on the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the department said.

Lynnwood Estates, meanwhile, is in the process of applying for federal grants that would fund the installation of specialized filters inside every home.

"We're trying to do this as fast as we can," Gridley said. "We don't want the process to drag on."

The association has been slowed by bureaucratic red tape, he added.

One filter has already been installed, according to DEQ Drinking Water Program Supervisor Suzanne Scheidt. Samples were tested in June, and the results were clean.

But it's not the perfect solution, residents said. The filter occasionally malfunctions, and one water supply for an entire family is not convenient.

Scheidt said the current arsenic level is not high enough to cause any immediate health effects. Only long-term consumption of the contaminate water - decades, most likely - would result in a serious health problem.

Still, the warning notices were delivered.

"We were concerned because the levels were so variable," Scheidt said.

Grimes, Campbell and other homeowners have grown weary of the long-lasting dilemma. They say they're ready for a remedy - and the sooner, the better.

"It's all been taking so long, and we're not really getting any information, other than mixed information," Grimes said.

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