Owner seeks arsenic solution

Sean C. Morgan

Landlord Josh Victor says he plans to initiate the process to connect his north 18th Avenue properties to city water in response to the detection of arsenic in well water in the area.

During tests for formaldehyde and diesel fuel contamination linked to the former Willamette Industries mill site at 2210 Tamarack St., arsenic was detected in private wells to the northwest of the mill.

While testing initially found formaldehyde contamination in some wells, subsequent testing failed to detect formaldehyde above safe drinking water levels. The state Department of Environmental Quality had been providing bottled water to residents of north 18th Avenue, Willow Street, Yucca Street, 19th Avenue and 20th Avenue. With the most recent tests failing to detect formaldehyde or diesel contamination, the DEQ discontinued the service on Friday, Aug. 31.

In an Aug. 14 notice, the DEQ notified residents about the test results for formaldehyde testing and that the DEQ would discontinue providing water. It also notified residents about arsenic detected in their wells, several of which contained unhealthy levels, along with contact information for the Oregon Health Authority.

Victor, who owns 20 properties in the area, accompanied by several other residents, went to the City Council on Aug. 14 asking to hook up those properties to the city’s water system.

In addition to the contamination issues, Victor said the area has a problem with wells periodically going dry.

“It’s my understanding there were some elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water,” said Tara Chetok, program coordinator for the Domestic Well Safety Program with OHA, which has provided residents with some educational information about testing and treatment of arsenic and the impact of arsenic on human health.

“Private drinking wells are interesting,” Chetok said, adding that they’re defined as wells serving one to three households. “These wells are not regulated by the state or federal government.”

They have no requirement for routine testing or reporting, she said. The property owner is the first and last stop in ensuring that a well’s water is safe.

Chetok said a low-interest revolving loan program is available to municipalities to help get properties that include contaminated wells connected to municipal water. The nonprofit Rural Community Assistance Corporation also provides low-interest loans to property owners.

Beyond that, OHA provides annual grants to local health departments for local programs, Chetok said.

Arsenic is naturally occurring, originating in rock formations in the ground, Chetok said. While bacterial and nitrate contamination can change over time, arsenic levels tend to remain the same, according to OHA’s studies.

It has no color, smell or taste. As water flows through certain rock formations, arsenic can dissolve and be carried into underground aquifers and well water.

Long-term consumption of arsenic in drinking water may increase the risk of health problems of the skin, circulatory system, nervous system, lungs and bladder, according to an OHA fact sheet. The problems include some forms of cancer.

Contamination levels above 10 parts per billion are unsafe to drink, or to be used to water fruits and vegetables, cook or mix into beverages, Chetok said. Water is safe to use for other purposes, such as laundry, bathing, washing dishes and gardening, below 100 parts per billion.

According to an OHA fact sheet, arsenic is unsafe for gardening from 100 to 499 parts per billion but remains safe for other domestic uses. At 500 parts per billion and higher, it is not safe to use at all.

Testing costs between $30 and $45, according to the OHA. Accredited labs may be found at healthoregon.org/wells.

Victor said he would like to connect the neighborhood to the city’s water system. He has talked to some other property owners who also indicated they would be willing to pay to connect to city water, although others may not.

To initiate the local improvement district process, “all he has to do is come in,” said City Manager Ray Towry.

City Staff Engineer Joe Graybill said the area has approximately 45 properties. He roughly estimated the cost of connecting at $500,000. That would include main lines, laterals, meters, backflow devices and private service lines as well patching the roadway.

The roads have numerous potholes and have turned from oil mat to gravel at places in the neighborhood.

To pave those roads, the cost of a local improvement district rises to roughly $750,000, Graybill said. To include curbs, gutters and sidewalks, the cost rises to $850,000.

On average, the cost would be nearly $19,000 per property. The cost for each property is calculated based on frontage and size.

“To get from what it is to what you have in the standard subdivision style, that’s what it would be,” Graybill said. The neighborhood does have other options.

Neighborhoods can initiate local improvement districts with the agreement of a majority of property owners.

In a local improvement district, the city fronts the cost, said Finance Director Brandon Neish. The cost is recorded as a lien and paid back over a specified period of time – usually 10 years, although some have stretched longer. When a property sells, the lien is paid.

Towry said LIDs typically have some kind of cost-sharing, and city officials are working with other agencies to find additional options for potential cost-sharing.

The Linn County Health Department will host a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Jim Riggs Community Center to discuss the groundwater in the neighborhood.