Investigation | What’s in the brown water in Charlestown?

Investigation | What’s in the brown water in Charlestown?

CHARLESTOWN, Ind. (WDRB) — Imagine having to drink brown water, bathe in it and wash your clothes in it.

Charlestown residents have had to do it for years. So what’s in the water and is it safe? WDRB News spent four months investigating to find the answers.

“We pay for water that is brown,” said Andrew Schmidgall, a Charlestown resident. “It’s your wash. It’s your toilet. It’s your shower. It’s your garden hose.

“In my opinion, we have another Flint, Michigan, in southern Indiana.”

No matter what faucet you turn on, the brown water could always be there.

“The more we use our water, the more brown it gets,” Jessica Neely, a Charlestown resident, said, adding that she sees brown water a couple times a month, and it’s worse on weekends.

And it’s been a problem for decades.

“We have residents 70-80 years old remember their parents complaining about it,” Charlestown Mayor Bob Hall said.

The brown water has ruined laundry, and it scares parents.

Brittaney Demars, who lives in Charlestown, said the water will turn from clear to brown when she turns the faucet on to bathe her kids.

And it’s leaving a bad taste in residents’ mouths.

“It’s kinda like when you brush your teeth with a real gritty toothpaste,” said Shannon Combs, a Charlestown resident. “Almost like … dirt flavored.”

Dozens of people have called the city to complain, records city officials are writing down by hand.

It all leads to the question: What’s in the water?

“Our water is safe,” Hall said. “It’s not pleasant to look at, at times, for those that experience it.”

Charlestown officials say the culprit is manganese, a metal commonly associated with iron or stainlesss steel. It builds up in the aging pipes, turning the water a nasty-looking brown.

“We don’t have clear water,” Combs said. “If we have clear water, it’s clear for Charlestown. It’s not clear as bottled water.”

In 2012, the city told WDRB News they started adding a liquid solution called Clearitas, saying it could be six months or a year until residents notice a difference. The city said calls are now fewer. Six years later, the water is still brown. The city said the problem sometimes becomes more obvious when the fire hydrants are flushed.

“Everytime that they do a flush, if they flush a fire hydrant, it causes a big surge in the line, and it just comes flying into everybody’s homes,” Schmidgall said.

Records show the city flushes the systems at least eight or nine times a year to try to clear the lines. But the city admits brown water pours from the faucets a lot more than that.

Every year, Charlestown puts out an annual drinking water quality report. What’s not included in it? Manganese. Manganese testing isn’t required for water testing and is not federally enforced.

“Our levels don’t concern me as far as health is concerned,” Hall said.

But Ed Byers doesn’t buy it. He said there are reasons why he doesn’t drink it.

“Just to look it and to smell it,” he said. “I wouldn’t drink it. I won’t even give it to my pets.”

Byers, a former instructor at the University of Louisville and a longtime Charlestown resident, started doing his own research about manganese and the health effects associated with it.

“It has increased motor function disabilities, memory problems, very similar to Alzheimers,” he said.

“We’ve got probably the best health study,” Hall said. We’ve got 75 years of it. We’re not a hot spot for any medical condition, because it’s not a contaminant.”

With the help of residents, WDRB News had the water tested. The samples were collected in sealed lab containers and taken to the lab.

First, we tested for E-coli. In this sample, the water from the tub was more yellow. But after an 18-hour test and despite the color, the lab said this water is free from E-coli and safe to drink.

For the next sample, we went back to the lab, this time to test for lead, copper and other metals.

“We ran a full scan of 22 metals, and the only metal concerning was manganese,” said Nicole Krumme, a lab analyst at Beckmar Environmental.

The lab found the manganese in our sample was way over the EPA guidelines.

“It was 32 times over the EPA limit of .05 milligrams per liter,” Krumme said.

That’s 1.6 mg per liter.

“The levels set by the EPA are aesthetic, not for health purposes,” Hall said. “We usually run about .2, sometimes lower than that, sometimes higher. That’s a fair average.”

The city’s levels tested much lower than ours, but .2 is still four times the EPA limit.

Hall said the city tests its water every day looking for manganese, iron and other chemicals. The samples come from the water treatment plant and from a faucet at another city building. Hall said the city does it voluntarily and gives the reports to the state.

“We’re not a Flint, Michigan,” he said. “We’re not anywhere near that.”

Charlestown wants to sell its water system to Indiana American Water for $13.4 million. The Indiana Court of Appeals will have to give final approval. For now, the sale is on hold. City officials say a decision on the sale is expected soon.

But Hall said even if the sale goes through, it’ll be years until it’s all fixed.

“When I hear the word years, I’m thinking 10-20 years,” he said. “It is what is is. There is no quick fix.”

Hall said Indiana American Water is expected to fix the water by replacing pipes in five years. He said the city looked at numerous options, but selling the water company was the best option. Still, residents are left to wonder.

“I want to find out is it safe to drink,” Neely said.

Hall said when the water is brown, he wouldn’t recommend drinking it.

“Run your faucet, clear it out, and you’ll be fine,” he said.

Schmidgall and others have installed a water filter in their houses to keep the water clear.

“I’m paying the town to provide a service: water,” Schmidgall said. “It’s their responsibility to make sure their water is clean and safe, and they’re not doing it.”

December 13th, 2018 – – by Valerie Chinn