By: Sandra L. Wilmore
Residents in the Town of Pines know better than to take drinking water for granted. In April of 2000, drinking water wells were found contaminated with several volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and metals. Two years and several test series later, nine of 32 sites tested are confirmed contaminated, the source or sources are uncertain, and there is no sign of resolution.
The Town of Pines is located less than one mile inland from Lake Michigan and borders the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Groundwater contamination in this rural community of 800 residents was first discovered in April of 2000, when a resident reported foul drinking water that smelled like nail polish remover. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) tested several wells in response, surrounding and including the residence of complaint. Tests revealed the presence of several VOCs and benzene levels at 140ug/l at the residence of complaint; no other wells were found contaminated.
Several months later, tests confirmed benzene and metals, including chromium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, and cadmium, in other wells. Tests conducted in September of 2000 discovered two additional wells with benzene in excess of Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). One well was also found to contain levels of arsenic above MCLs. Elevated levels of manganese (180 – 8200 ug/l) were detected in eight wells. In April of 2001, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s removal program took the lead for the site and confirmed IDEM’s results. EPA testing also identified elevated levels of MTBE in the area. On July 16, 2001 IDEM staff again sampled wells in the area. Sampling results at this point revealed that three other residential wells contained elevated levels of lead. In September of 2001, another residential well was found to contain elevated levels of nickel. Elevated levels of chromium were detected in the soils of the city park, and 20 wells showed elevated levels of boron, manganese, lead, iron, sulfate, nickel, and arsenic.
The Town of Pines is located on an unconfined aquifer, and the 17-35 feet deep wells are located in a highly porous sand layer that experiences large seasonal fluctuations. The area sampled appears to be down gradient from at least three landfills, two of which are no longer active. The active landfill accepts the by-products of coal-combustion processes used by utility power plants and other industries. Although well data from the active landfill indicates no VOC or metal migration, Hoosier Environmental Council representatives point out that the presence of boron, manganese, and calcium sulfate in down gradient wells is consistent with contamination from coal-combustion waste. Other potential sources of contamination include fly ash used 30 years ago for road and residential fill; underground gasoline storage tanks; dredging spoils from Trail Creek allegedly deposited in the area; and unregulated junk and scrap yards.
With only 10% of wells tested, data are insufficient to determine a pattern leading to a source. Of course, residents whose wells have not been tested are concerned that their wells may be contaminated. Residences of known contamination are being provided with filters and/or bottled waters. Officials from both the EPA and IDEM have held several public hearings, but to date there are no long-term plans ensuring all residents safe drinking water. The Hoosier Environmental Council is actively supporting residents, and Save the Dunes Council continues to monitor progress.