DEQ flags Prineville well water

Downtown wells could be contaminated with gasoline

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: October 28. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials are warning downtown Prineville residents not to drink water from shallow wells, which may be contaminated by gasoline that has seeped into the groundwater.

City Manager Robb Corbett said at a City Council meeting Tuesday that the DEQ has asked the council to pass an ordinance banning people from using shallow groundwater for drinking. But the council members decided to look into how many people would be affected before making a decision.

The affected area lies roughly in the rectangle bordered by First Street, Harwood Avenue, Fifth Street and Dunham Street in the downtown corridor of the city.

The area has a mixture of homes and businesses, with a few churches, Prineville’s City Hall and the Crook County Courthouse.

Corbett said he does not think many, if any, people still use wells for drinking water in that area, since it is centrally located and most homes should be connected to the city’s water system. Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham said there is no chance the city’s water is contaminated because its wells are dug hundreds of feet deeper than the problematic groundwater.

“Because it’s in the downtown core, we’re kind of thinking that there aren’t going to be any people affected by it,” Corbett said. “By contacting these people, letting them know what’s going on, if they do have wells … at least they’re informed of the fact that this is a potentially hazardous situation and you might want to act appropriately.”

Bob Schwarz, a project manager with the DEQ, said the agency’s concerns stem from some cleanup it worked on in downtown Prineville between 1997 and 2000. Schwarz said that old fuel tanks at gas stations – which used to stand at the current locations of City Hall and Boss Hogg’s Smoke Shop, both on Third Street – contaminated the groundwater in the area.

Schwarz said that starting in the mid-1990s there were some complaints to local Prineville officials that fumes from the leaking gasoline were causing respiratory problems. In late 1997, the fire chief also received many complaints from people working in the area and contacted DEQ.

In the late 1990s, the DEQ cleaned up the groundwater in the area to levels that are acceptable but not safe for drinking. The city also received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to do cleanup prior to building the new City Hall, which opened in summer 2005.

“There was enough gasoline in the groundwater that vapors were seeping up into buildings and people were breathing it, so the contamination has been reduced several years ago already to the point that that’s no longer a problem,” Schwarz said.

However, he said, in some areas the levels of benzene in the water are still at about 70 parts per billion, far above the safe level for drinking water of less than one part per billion. Benzene is an element of gasoline that can be a carcinogen, Schwarz said.

During the cleanup between 1997 and 2000, the DEQ went door to door to survey residents about their wells. Schwarz said the agency did not find anyone drinking from a shallow well. He added that he is not concerned about the gasoline contaminating the Crooked River because the affected area doesn’t extend as far west as the river.

“This is not to prevent something that’s currently happening or even is likely to happen in the future, it’s just kind of a very low cost insurance policy to prevent them from doing so,” he said.

Several residents of the targeted area said that they only use city water for drinking. Nancy Christianson, who has lived on Fourth Street for about a year, said she doesn’t drink from a well, but she is not sure whether any of her neighbors do or not.

Carl Dutli, the Prineville city attorney, said that it is more likely people would use shallow wells for watering their lawns than for drinking, but added, “There are a lot of things that concern me about the situation.”

“I’m scratching my head saying, ‘Gee, if this was a concern, why didn’t DEQ contact us 10 years ago saying you’ve got this problem, you need to stop people from doing this?'” he said.

The DEQ could pass deed restrictions on individual properties to prevent people from drinking the shallow groundwater, but Schwarz said a city ordinance would be more effective because the contamination may extend to many neighboring lots.

Corbett said that he expects to have contacted everyone by mail in the affected area and arrive at an estimate of how many people drink from these wells by the next City Council meeting on Nov. 14. He added that connecting people who currently drink from wells to the city’s water system could be expensive for both the city and the residents.

“There is potentially a significant cost and I think that’s one of the reasons why the City Council wanted to know who’s affected, so they could look at that aspect,” he said.

He added that if anyone is concerned about their water, they should wait for a letter from City Hall and respond to that.

At the City Council meeting last Tuesday, some councilors wondered what the city’s liability would be if it did not take action now that the DEQ has informed them of the problem.

“I think it’s our responsibility to tell people that they can not drink this water,” Councilor Betty Roppe said.

Dutli said that once the mail survey is finished the council will have a clearer idea of how to proceed.

“Once we get all that done we’ll take a look at it and see, number one, what’s our liability, and number two, what’s the danger,” Dutli said. “The city certainly doesn’t want to knowingly or even negligently allow people to get ill.”

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