Frustrated Allegany residents await clean water

May 26, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BORDEN -- The water that Debbie Yutzy and others in this impoverished Allegany County community drink is so contaminated that it almost killed her mother six years ago.

Last month a social worker warned the 27-year-old woman that J. T., her 5-year-old boy, might be taken away from her because letting him drink the water amounted to neglect.

"They told us not to use the water, but we don't have any choice. This is our only water supply," she said. "She said I have to either get good water in here, whatever that may be, or move out, and if I don't and continue to live here, they are going to take him away."

The social worker, Cathy Kline, said she could not comment on an individual case. But it's one of the painful ironies in this place that while the county social services department is threatening to take a child from his mother, it says it can't afford to get decent water to Borden.

What seems to make it even more ironic is that only a few miles from here, Allegany County is paying more than $500,000 to supply public water to a group of middle-class homeowners who were part of an influential citizens coalition that unsuccessfully opposed plans for a $7 million landfill nearby.

In another part of the county, officials are completing the design of a $2.9 million water and sewer system for a community with less severe contamination problems than Borden's, but with the good fortune of having a new $45 million federal prison in its backyard.

Less than a mile away is the city of Frostburg, a college town with a public water system that comes practically to Borden's front door.

No one would build a landfill or a prison near this tiny hamlet of 25 homes, one of the poorest in Allegany County, where the hilly terrain and the long-abandoned deep-shaft mines make it difficult to sustain septic systems or deep-drilled wells. The systems that can be put in are too costly for many residents. One has to go nearly 300 feet down to drill a well of any use in Borden. The hand-dug wells often have contaminated water from either topsoil or waste seeping in.

Many of the people of Borden bring in bottled water -- or drink the contaminated water. They use outdoor toilets and live with the stench of wastewater that flows down the street.

Charles Deal gets his water for washing from the sky, collecting it in a cistern when it rains. He adds a cup of bleach to the water every month to disinfect it. "It keeps the dysentery down," he said.

Mr. Deal has been out of work for four years and lives off money from odd jobs and his wife's disability payments. Many of his neighbors are either unemployed or on fixed incomes.

He hooked up a system of collecting rainwater and pumping it into the house to use for cleaning. "It's still good for washing hair and doing dishes," he said.

The 51-year-old man pointed to a ditch in the street where brown water was trickling down. "I have to throw lime in that ditch during the summer to keep the smell down," he said.

Some people like Joan Tharp are fortunate enough to have septic systems and deep-drilled wells. But even she can't bring herself to drink the water because of the odor from the chemicals. "The smell will turn you away," she said. She uses bottled water instead.

"I don't feel like we are living like normal people," said Barbara Deal, Charles Deal's wife. "We're living like it's the 1800s."

Debbie Yutzy takes care of her 60-year-old mother, Edna Yutzy, who has been bedridden for six years. She contracted salmonella from the drinking water out of their hand-dug well. The disease ate up her intestines and contributed to numerous other health problems, including a stroke, Debbie Yutzy said.

Her family is too poor to afford a drilled well or septic system. Moving is not an option for them. "I can't afford to move," Edna Yutzy said. "This old house is paid for."

But the Allegany County government has bypassed Borden, while going ahead with county-funded -- or federally and state-funded -- projects in other areas of the county, even though health officials have been aware of the serious water contamination problems in Borden. Several years ago, a county survey of homes in Borden and nearby showed that 31.2 percent of the water supplies were contaminated with bacteria -- 7.3 percent with readings of fecal coliform.

"I don't think there is a question in anyone's mind of the need for public water services up in Borden," said Walter Finster, county director of environmental health. "It's a matter of coming up with financing not only that the county can afford, but also the users."

But users of the water extension from Frostburg several miles south to the Vale Summit area, the site of the new landfill, will not have to pay any of the capital costs of running that line near their homes.

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