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Twin Lakes residents worry about arsenic in water

Twin Lakes Township residents shared concerns on two issues — arsenic in well water and low water levels — at a town hall meeting Monday night.

About 35 residents attended the meeting and several told State Representative Mike Sundin and State Senator Tony Lourey that they were upset over the lack of communication and problem solving on the part of the government to keep them updated and help them solve the contaminated water issue.

After introductions and a project background overview by engineering consultant Tim Korby, he opened the floor to the residents for comments and thoughts about the ongoing water issues in the area. Korby explained that arsenic occurs naturally in rocks and some soil in Minnesota, depending on the geology of the area. Arsenic cannot be seen, tasted or smelled in the water. The only way to find out if water is contaminated by arsenic is to have it tested.

He said he has been working on the ongoing project for its 17-year duration. They agree with residents that there is a shortage of water in the area as well as poor water quality.

He told of one building in the area that had to dig seven wells and still is short of water.

Korby informed residents that officials are in the process of applying for a $10.4 million grant from USDA. They are also pursuing other grants and funding to help pay for a proposed watermain extension from the city of Carlton to serve Schmitz Road, Olsonville, the County Transportation Building and the County Industrial Park site near the Transportation Building. The project is led by Twin Lakes Township and the city of Carlton, and also includes a new water treatment plant in Carlton, a new supply well and city watermain improvements.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the maximum amount of arsenic levels allowed in community water supplies is 10 micrograms per liter. While most wells in the area are under that number, several are above. Korby said four new homes have recently tested positive above a level 10 in the Twin Lakes region.

Korby said they are still searching for a finite answer that will give all residents safe drinking water.

"This project has the most need of any project I have worked on or seen in the 34 years I have worked in this job," stressed Korby.

He added that the township and city started to talk in 2000 and the board is recommending a new water distribution line to help provide adequate, safe water. A new water treatment plant is one of the ideas that is being considered to solve the arsenic problem.

Not surprisingly, the biggest problem is finding affordable financing, which is also a concern for many residents.

Carlton resident Becky Walters moved to Olsonville Road in 1995. She explained to the legislators that she got sick a year later with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. After the diagnosis, Walters took it upon herself to have her well water tested for arsenic. It tested at a level four. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there is a health risk with any arsenic consumption. Even low levels can cause increased risk of developing diabetes, cancer of the bladder, lungs, liver and other organs.

Then she decided to have herself tested for arsenic and that test came back positive as well. Walters attended a meeting for residents in January about the arsenic problem in local water supplies.

"Why were we as citizens not notified earlier?" Walters asked the legislators.

She reminded the legislators they had been elected by the residents to work for them and even though she emailed both Mike Sundin and Tony Lourey, she never heard back from either of them. The only people who answered her were people locally.

She held up a jug of water and challenged either of the legislators to drink her water daily for a year. Neither accepted. She repeatedly asked why the residents were not notified of the possibility of arsenic in their water years ago.

Walters now has four water filtration systems in her home, but she is still concerned the damage may have already been done to her son. Her son had issues until he moved out and Walters is concerned there may be more down the road. The Minnesota Department of Health states health impacts of arsenic may take many years to develop. Walters told the legislators they are supposed to be taking care of the residents.

"This is a tremendous health issue," stressed Walters. "The residents expect better, we deserve better."

Several residents who live on Schmitz Road — which is off of Highway 210 next to the Carlton County Transfer Station — also spoke. Lloyd Schmitz has lived on his 120 acres for his entire 80 years. He lives near four wells that tested positive for arsenic near the Carlton County Transfer Station.

Schmitz was upset because arsenic testing had been completed on his well and he was never notified of the results. He said he has had ongoing concerns about what has been dumped into the nearby landfill and how it may have affected his water supply. Several of his neighbors told similar stories of seeing barrels deposited into the landfill and dozed over. They tried to talk to a few government officials, but their concerns were ignored.

A clerk in the back of the room said the results had been mailed to the residents and he should have received his. Lloyd was able to look at the results after the meeting and found his well tested positive for low levels of arsenic. He and several other residents are concerned about the cost to clean the water as well as how it affects their property values.

Randy Schmitz was diagnosed with bone cancer in March of this year and has had several surgeries. He notes there is no family history of bone cancer and wonders if it could have been caused by drinking well water containing arsenic, a known carcinogen.

Mike and Patti Schmitz brought in a letter dated April 18, 2012 from the MPCA that said their well had been contaminated by the nearby landfill.

The letter stated that an investigation showed there is a sand channel that conveys arsenic from the landfill to the southwest and it had impacted their well. The letter suggested the solution was to install a Reverse Osmosis Unit, which was done free of charge.

"I give credit, they have done a lot to help us out, but they could have done better," said Mike. He wondered where they had been for the last 14 years of the project and why he was not contacted earlier about possible arsenic in his water. His well had tested positive with a level 23 micrograms per liter. He said he still refuses to drink the water even though it has been treated.

He noted he also saw a lot of stuff dumped into the landfill that he feels should not have been. He is concerned about the neighbors' children's health.

Another resident's well tested at level 9 micrograms per liter for arsenic. He told the legislators his family had been drinking the water for four years before they were notified. His wife has been diagnosed with an immune disorder and he also wonders if it's a result of the arsenic.

Don Juntunen's 480-foot-deep well tested at 21.1 micrograms per liter. He had his well hydro fractured so it would provide enough water, but now he doesn't drink the water because of the high levels of contamination. Juntunen is concerned about his pets' health because they have been drinking the water.

Several residents remarked about the nasty smell of their well water and expressed concern it might mean the water is contaminated.

The experts took the mic when the residents were finished explaining their concerns about the water contamination.

Chris Elvrum from the Minnesota Department of Health explained the smell is not from arsenic because it is odorless, but rather either bacteria or sulfur in the water.

He said he understands citizens' concerns, because arsenic is a health risk and a known carcinogen.

Elvrum said the problem is relatively easy to treat with a trip to a local big box store. Residents can purchase a Reverse Osmosis Treatment system and treat their water themselves, or they can hire someone to come in and treat the water in the entire house for about $5,000 or so.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency research scientist Sherri Kroenig told residents there are 270 wells across Minnesota and 10 in Carlton County — primarily in Cloquet and Moose Lake — that the MPCA use to test for contaminants in local water.

Both legislators told residents they heard their concerns and plan to help.

Sundin told residents he agreed with them that the arsenic in wells should be dealt with right away.

Lourey said he was alarmed by how many wells were affected by arsenic contamination. From the look of the map on the wall, he guessed it would be a fairly large financial cost.

He thanked residents for showing up and speaking at the meeting. He said there is a bonding bill ready to be presented to his colleagues as soon as they meet again.

Derek Wolf, a Carlton Public Works Department employee and a member of the Carlton/Twin Lakes Joint Powers Board, told legislators he has a bus license and can bring a crowd to the Twin Cities any time they like.

Lourey agreed that could be helpful to the cause. He said his colleagues may be more responsive to the bonding bill if they could hear the concerns from the residents themselves.

Joint Powers Board member Randy Willie addressed the residents last.

"With a group like this we can have a large voice," said Willie. "We will let them know we're still waiting."

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