Neighbors savor taste of the tap

Water: Tainted wells prevented a handful of families in Cumberland from enjoying a convenience others take for granted.

September 20, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Over the past six years, Ella Snyder has used roughly 4,300 gallons of bottled mineral water. She has a working 105-foot well in her front lawn, but ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told her it was contaminated with hazardous waste, she's opted for the bottles.

But Snyder and 18 neighboring households on a hillside east of Cumberland have returned to the world of safe tap water. This Allegany County community of mostly small houses and mobile homes was finally hooked up to the city water system, and for Snyder and her neighbors, it meant a transition few can appreciate.

Snyder had been drinking, cooking, canning garden vegetables and filling bowls for her three dogs and two cats with water from a bottle for more than 2,000 consecutive days. One might say it became ritual.

"I still go to the jug," the 65-year-old says. "You do something for a long time, then change? Oh my." But she likes the change. "When you've got to tell everyone when they come in, `Don't drink the water,' they look at you kind of crazy."

Some residents here still have boxes of "Famous Berkeley Springs Mineral Water" stacked on their porches, three weeks after the county switched on city water to their homes. "Maybe," says Dorothy Sibley, 80, another resident, "I'll keep one as a souvenir."

Water quality became an issue here in 1981 when, according to an EPA report, a garbage hauler who had a business in the neighborhood was hired by a corporation in Hagerstown - Fairchild Industries - to dispose of its hazardous waste. The hauler dumped the material in a hollow near his business and the homes of Snyder and her neighbors.

In 1982, the EPA examined the area and found enough evidence of contamination to label it a "Superfund" site, placing it among the nation's most hazardous waste sites. The agency ordered the grounds sealed off. Continuing to study the site over the next decade, it began to detect in the ground water high levels of chromium and cadmium, chemicals which are carcinogens and can also cause ailments ranging from upset stomachs to lung and kidney disease.

Beginning in 1994, the EPA ordered Fairchild Industries and Cumberland Cement and Supply, which owned the property where the waste was dumped, to pay a local distributor to deliver bottled water to surrounding families, including George Rose, his wife and five children.

At first, the family even brushed their teeth with bottled water, Rose says. And he was always nervous letting his children, now ages 14 to 36, bathe and take showers in the well water, even as the EPA told residents the only danger was in consuming the water.

"It was always on your mind," he says. "Wouldn't it be on your mind, what the health effects could be?" Rose says that, despite the fears, his family has been free of health troubles.

The grandson of farmers who owned most of this neighborhood at the turn of the century, Rose became so annoyed by talk of dirty water that, around 1990, he put his three-bedroom rancher up for sale. Because the Realtor had to disclose that the well water posed a danger, Rose set a relatively low asking price of $65,000. There were no serious bidders.

About five years ago, the EPA tested his well and deemed it safe, and took him off the list of households to receive free bottled water. Not confident in the results of the test, Rose has been buying bottled water at the grocery store ever since. "I don't know how it was in that house and not in this one next to it," says Rose, pointing to the home next door, which, like Snyder's residence, tested positive for contamination until city water line was connected.

Peter Ludzia, a section chief with the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia who specializes in Superfund sites, says the ground beneath the Western Maryland neighborhood is bedrock, and contaminants often seeped into areas farther from the dump site while leaving closer ground water unharmed. "It was a sporadic situation, and it wasn't grossly contaminated," Ludzia says.

Other residents remain unconvinced.

"They cut off our [bottled] water, and we're directly downhill from the mess," says Sandi Rose, who lives up the street from George Rose, her brother-in-law. "We might be old country folks, and they may think we're stupid, but I know water runs down, not up."

She and her husband, Don, have also been buying bottled water since the EPA called their well safe several years ago. Sandi Rose says she was always reluctant to let her 10 grandchildren, who are as young as 15 months, use the bathtub "It's hard to go and take bottled water with you when you bathe," she says.

Ludzia says his office is dispatched once or twice a year to provide bottled water for communities with contaminated ground water, but that it rarely takes six years to find an alternative water source. "We're at the close of a successful project," he adds. "We've come up with a remedy that's going to protect the people."

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