AT LAST, CLEAN WATER

July 25, 2002 12:00 am
Take a drink: Austin and Kyndra Ritchie enjoy the clean water that now runs freely from the faucets at their great-grandmother Lorraine Twidwell's residence, 2006 26th St., La Grande. Austin, who visits his great-grandmother almost every day, finds it much more convenient to be able to drink tap water rather than bottled water. Austin and Kyndra's mother, Kristi Ritchie, daughter of Lorraine, has lived next door for nine years and knows the hardship of dealing with undrinkable water. ().
Take a drink: Austin and Kyndra Ritchie enjoy the clean water that now runs freely from the faucets at their great-grandmother Lorraine Twidwell's residence, 2006 26th St., La Grande. Austin, who visits his great-grandmother almost every day, finds it much more convenient to be able to drink tap water rather than bottled water. Austin and Kyndra's mother, Kristi Ritchie, daughter of Lorraine, has lived next door for nine years and knows the hardship of dealing with undrinkable water. ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"You couldn't stand the smell of the water; you couldn't even hold it up to your nose."

That's the way Lorraine Twidwell described the chronic petroleum-tasting and foul-smelling water she and her husband, Marvin, were getting from their well on their seven-acre parcel on 26th Street. They have a large garden, raise goats and have a horse and have had cattle since moving there in 1965.

She described the property as being in the country before development, both commercial and residential, sprang up around them. She remembers there were a lot of gas stations along nearby Island Avenue.

When the smell in the water persisted, they started using bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Meanwhile, they sent water samples away for laboratory tests. That was two years ago.

"The early tests came back and they said it was OK, ‘Go ahead and drink it,' we were told," she said.

"The water was ruining our washing machine, the dishwater and the hot water heater," Lorraine Twidwell said.

The water didn't get better, and finally someone told her to call the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Duane Smith, with the DEQ tanks program in Pendleton, arrived and immediately declared the water unfit for human consumption.

DEQ investigators found a suspected carcinogen called methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE.

Benzene, another toxin usually found in gasoline, was confirmed as being in a shallow irrigation well on the property.

The discovery of the chemical MTBE, a relatively new additive found in gasoline, mandated that the home be connected to the La Grande city water system. Immediately.

That was done about a week ago. Although normally the job would have included a systems development fee of $6,534, the city agreed to delay assessing that fee until the party responsible could be found, said Scott Fairley of the Pendleton DEQ office.

Now, with city water, Lorraine Twidwell said, "You can't imagine how nice it is just to be able to take a bath."

When DEQ got the complaint about the bad water, officials acted rapidly.

"We started investigating and found that the concentration of MTBE was high enough — approximately one-fourth of the 20-parts-per-billion level that is thought to pose a health hazard — that we felt using the well should be discontinued and the residence should be connected to city water," Fairley said.

MTBE is extremely soluble in water and as little as 10 parts per billion can cause an objectionable taste and odor, he said.

"I can't stress enough how helpful and quick the City of La Grande was in getting city water hooked up, especially in agreeing to delay the Systems Development Fee," he said.

DEQ, now seeking the origin of the contamination, has drilled test holes in the vicinity to trace the chemical back to its source, Fairley said.

Workers will map the plume of the contamination, which will have the shape of a teardrop, Fairley said.

Fairley said the source eventually will be found.

"At one time there were a lot of gas stations along Island Avenue, which is Highway 82, and there were all kinds of underground tanks," he said. "It's hard to say where the MTBE came from."

Historically, he said, when gasoline components are found in groundwater, the most common source is leaks from underground storage tanks and piping from the tanks.

"We often do find the responsible party, and usually their insurance covers the cost of the cleanup. If they don't pay or are unwilling to pay, we can put a lien against the property."

Meanwhile, DEQ is utilizing the state's Orphan Site Account program to fund the connection costs, including the water meter, which are not included in the Systems Development Fee.

The company or individual responsible for the release of the contaminants will be held liable for the investigation, the cleanup costs and the connection fees, including the Systems Development Fee.

"They will get a bill," Fairley said.