Phoenix Water Woes: Warriors On Alert

This is the second part of a three-part story about the village of Phoenix’s water, for Part 1 click here. -Ed.

PHOENIX, NY – Through the summer months public attendance at local board meetings spiked as village of Phoenix residents’ frustrations over dirty, smelly water were voiced during sometimes contentious public comment periods and discussions during the meetings.

IMG_5913As village leaders mulled over options to correct the problem, they sent a June reminder to residents that the public water supply continued to be under a directive from the Oswego County Health Department and New York State Department of Health to comply with surface water contamination rules.

July and August saw residents and business owners flocking to public meetings to complain to village leaders about decades long issues of discolored drinking water, clothes damaged by unclean wash water, bad smelling water, the cost of buying drinking water while paying for municipal water and the fear of waterborne disease.

Seeking new ways to communicate, a website and then a social media outlet Facebook page “Phoenix Water Warriors” was created by local activists as a place for residents to report to each other on the condition of their water, and share government meetings and community responses to current conditions and forward plans.

At a September Board of Trustees’ meeting with a gallery of 50 people, when prior meetings rarely saw more than five in attendance, residents again voiced their concern about the water, and the length of time it was taking to bring a solution to the table.

The Oct. 7 regular Trustees’ board meeting turned contentious as village officials and residents tempers’ reached a boiling point and each shouted the other down over questions of parliamentary law, motive and competency.

A few days later, another Facebook page appeared, “Mayor Fratto’s Warriors“, as a support page for village Mayor Anthony Fratto, but it quickly turned into a discussion of water issues, including explanations interjected by village Trustee John Halstead.

Concerns over the local water safety and its quality problem were exacerbated when the Phoenix School District shuttered its drinking fountains Oct. 8 and installed temporary drinking water stations after discolored water was noted at “a couple locations” according to an Oct. 17 letter to parents from the school superintendent.

School District letter“It was explained that there was a surge of water due to preparation for replacing a water hydrant,” the school administrator wrote to district families. “The hydrant was replaced on Monday (Oct. 13) when school was closed.”

In her letter, the school leader said the discoloration was due to minerals “such as iron and magnesium” being stirred up in the pipes.

(Note that engineers have named iron and manganese, not magnesium as the main well contaminants. -Ed.)

She added that “the water is drinkable and meets the Oswego County Health Department guidelines,” and included an Oct. 17 letter from the health department on the reverse side.

Oswego County Health Department Director Jienchang Huang, while assuring the superintendent and by extension the district’s families, in his letter reiterated the current and ongoing situation with the village water supply and compliance issues.

“The village of Phoenix’s water supply is safe to utilize for drinking water in the schools,” the health department director stated.

“The Phoenix public water system is currently in violation of the state’s Surface Water Treatment Rule because the wells were identified as being under the direct influence of surface water,” Huang said. “The purpose of (this rule) is to protect against contamination from large diameter pathogens such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. … (A)nd the department has not received any reports (of these diseases) associated with the Phoenix water supply.”

Click for full size letter
Click for full size letter

The Health Department director further advised people with compromised immune systems, those with infants and “some elderly” to discuss the drinking water with their health care provider if they are concerned.

He noted there are no boil notices in effect, tests continue to yield satisfactory results, and reiterated “the water is safe to drink.”

Meanwhile, parents continued to report on both social media sites that their children were experiencing brown water from the drinking fountains at school.

Four days later, during the Oct. 21 meeting, Doug Miller, of Miller Engineering, told residents and Trustees that the recent inspection found the wells and casings intact, the temperatures at the wells were ‘fine’, and drilling new wells would not fix the problem, ruling out two of the solutions approved by the Health Department.

Middle school drinking fountain bagged for having brown water.
Middle school drinking fountain bagged for having brown water.

“We could not identify any significant damage or defects in the existing well construction that would lead us to believe that constructing new wells in the same aquifer would produce a water supply that would not be subject to groundwater under the influence,” Miller advised the Trustees. “The option of putting in new wells in that aquifer, in that close proximity, was not a viable option.”

“Foster Well #1 had some presence of iron and some bacteria,” he said, noting the water tested meets all requirements for New York State drinking water. “Laboratory results for MPA’s that I mentioned before were a little bit heavy, but that’s based on the iron that you’re pumping from the ground out there.”

Photo of bathwater posted on social media after mother caught unaware of water line flushing.
Photo of bathwater posted on social media after mother caught unaware of water line flushing.

The engineer said naturally occurring iron and manganese are the main contaminants in the wells, and a filtration system based on current technology could be installed to help combat those contaminants, but without being able to adequately address the groundwater influence issue, there was no sense wasting time or money considering that piece of the Health Department’s suggested corrective action.

Deputy Mayor Danny Dunn, (sitting in for Fratto – who has led the village after being repeatedly re-elected for 11 years, and continues his valiant fight with brain cancer) noted this is not a new problem.

“That was known way back … in the late ’60s early ’70s when the first drilled wells went in there,” Dunn said. “The village was told, ‘you’re going to have, when the water levels come up because of the close proximity you’re going to end up with high iron and high manganese content,’ and they said, ‘there’s nothing you’re going to do about it. It’s going to happen because of the infiltration-the proximity of the swamp, that water level’s going to come up when the river level comes up.”

Now resigned to its last option of an outside water source, Trustee’s requested Miller research the costs of hooking into the municipal supply at Great Bear, compared to the connection at county Route 12 and I-481, as proposed.

The engineer agreed to supply the village with that information to help determine the most effective way to move forward, with a March 2016 implementation date projected.

Tomorrow – Part III: The Sand Ridge Aquifer, Peter Scott Swamp and New Water

To read Part I: Phoenix Finally Fixes Water Woes, click here.