Something in the water

Homeowners claim lumber mill is responsible for contaminating their private well water, but company isn’t so sure

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A sample of water that the Brooks took from their tap shows discoloration even after a filtration system has been put into place.

ATHOL - There's no more fight in Judy Brooks.

When she turns on a faucet inside her Chilco Road home in Athol, and yellow, foul-smelling water spits out, leaving fragments of wood in the sink and tub after it drains, she just throws her arms up.

The only option left for Brooks and husband Walter is to abandon their private well and hook up to North Kootenai Water and Sewer District's public water source.

It could cost her and around a dozen neighbors $10,000 each, but she's done fighting it.

"You start to feel like you need to give up," she said. "You hit the wall."

The contamination in her well, she says, is from her neighbor, the Idaho Forest Group.

More specifically, from the residue the nearby mill produces as it washes down its timber, which she believes seeps into their water supply.

But Judy and her husband can't prove it.

Neither can the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The department's most recent tests showed that the area has had a history of water quality issues, with a number of possible sources in the area that could soak into water supplies.

But the Brooks' water turned yellow beginning in the summer of 2010, and later tested positive for wood product bypass such as tannins, lignin and Manganese. Its Manganese level in October 2010 was 5.38 mg/L, well above the standard .05 mg/L, according to a test result from testing company SVL.

The sudden contamination came two years after Idaho Forest Group was formed by the merger with Riley Creek Lumber and Bennett Forest Industries, and upped lumber production at the Chilco mill by 15 percent.

The mill's 248-acre property, with an operating capacity of 280 million board feet per year according to the company's website, is just across Chilco Road from the Brooks' home.

"Rotten wood byproducts is what it is," said Judy Brooks, who has lived in her home for around 30 years. "All summer they water their logs."

IDENTIFYING SOLUTIONS

The Idaho Forest Group says it wants to help the neighbors as much as it can as the sides strive for a permanent solution.

After the problem first arose, Judy Brooks contacted IFG. The company paid more than $11,000 for filtration systems for the couple, and two neighbors in the immediate area, one of whom is Judy Brooks' sister, according to a copy of the receipt.

The company did so to be a good neighbor, as the sides tried to figure out what the cause was, said Mike Henley, IFG plant manager who oversees the Chilco and Laclede sites.

They didn't buy it because they were the ones causing the problem.

"It was the first time we'd heard of it," Henley said. "We felt like until we understood what was going on, we wanted to help any way we could."

The area has had a history of water quality concerns.

As far back as the 1990s, neighbors complained of possible coliform and E. coli bacteria in their waters, according to according to Gary Stevens, DEQ regional hydrogeologist.

Most recently the DEQ tested nine different wells on a quarterly or monthly basis from 2006-2009.

It released a 2010 ground water quality report for the Chilco area of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and found that coliform, which can be an indicator of other bacteria, was present. Coliform was also present in nearby areas, such as Chilco Lake, which drains east toward the neighborhood.

Where the contaminates come from can be impossible to identify. The same is likely the case with the wood byproduct complaints, as those byproduct-like tannins tested positive in Chilco Lake as well as other spots in the forested area, he said.

"That's the difficulty, trying to rule out all the different sources," he said. "With additional testing, we're not confident we could identify the source or sources."

The wood byproduct isn't a health risk, either.

It turns the water undrinkable, even gross to smell and look at, but even if someone drank the contaminated water, it wouldn't make them sick, according to the DEQ.

Instead of expending resources to test for the source, the DEQ is working with IFG, the water supplier and neighbors to hook the 14 homes up to a public source.

"If the water system could be extended all these residents would have an option," Stevens said. "We certainly appreciate their frustration, but at the same time we're trying to resolve this."

The DEQ has a low interest loan, .025 percent, for residents to pay for their LIDs and capitalization fees should they go through with hooking up to the line.

IFG could pay for 30 of the 44 LID assessments, extending the water line roughly 4,000 feet from near U.S. 95 closer to the mill property and neighbors.

The company needs the water supply, too, but its financial commitment should ease the cost for neighbors on the estimated $460,000 project, according to Mike Galante, manager of the North Kootenai Water and Sewer District.

The more people who hook up, the cheaper the financial burden for those involved, he said.

The project could get under way this spring.

The agencies are also looking for grants to help ease the cost more, they said.

LIKELY LEFT WITH A BILL

But the Brooks, like the other 14 neighbors, will still be left with a bill.

They may have to pay around $10,000 over 30 years if they were to hook up.

That's added to the roughly $2,000 the couple spent on a new washing machine, dryer and water heater that the yellowed-contaminated water ruined. And they threw away the clothes the contaminated water stained in the washer.

The filtration system IFG bought them broke down. It was fixed this week, but neither Judy Brooks nor Henley of IFG were certain who would foot the bill, or whether it was covered by a warranty.

Currently, their water supply isn't tainted. Judy Brooks attributes that to the company not watering its logs, like it does in the summer. Either way, anything other than hooking up to the public water supply is a temporary solution, she said.

"It's a Band-Aid," she said, adding she has no desire to pursue the matter through litigation because she would be overmatched by finances and resources. "You just want to say, 'buy my house then.'"

Other neighbors declined to be interviewed, but Henley said no other neighbors have requested the company pay for a filtration system.

He said he hopes the teamwork of getting the waterline closer for the whole neighborhood to hook up to public water is the best solution in the area that has a history of water quality concerns, adding that the company has had a good relationship with all its neighbors since the merger.

"We want to be neighborly," he said. "We want to help our neighbors."

Walter Brooks climbs out of the well house after replacing a lid to one of the pieces of equipment of a water filtration system. The system, that provides his home and the neighboring house its drinking water, was paid for by a nearby mill after the area water supplies showed signs of contamination.

 

Operations at the Idaho Forest Group mill in Chilco have neighbors complaining of water quality issues.

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