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October 8, 2003

Tainted Grand Island water raises concerns
by Paul Hammel, Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald

Joan Schwan's young grandson had a sandpaperlike skin rash that just wouldn't go away.

Even after three doctors looked at it, including a skin specialist in Omaha. Even after they tried remedies for allergies and eczema. Even after they double-rinsed the child's clothes.

Then, last June, two weeks after the toddler, Jamison, and his mother moved away from Schwan's home on Grand Island's southwest edge to Lincoln, the rash disappeared.

On Tuesday, a visibly alarmed grandmother wondered whether the 20-month-old's mysterious rash -- and her own migraine headaches -- might be linked to a high level of chemical contamination that was discovered Friday in her private well water.

The contamination -- nearly 40 times the acceptable drinking-water level for one industrial solvent -- is bad enough that Schwan and her neighbors have been advised not only to avoid drinking the water but also not to use it for showering or bathing.

Federal officials say the contaminants identified in Grand Island may cause cancer and other health problems.

"It makes you stop and wonder if there is a connection," Schwan, a 44-year-old child abuse protection advocate, said of her family's recent health problems. "We don't know."

It's just one of several questions being asked Tuesday by residents in a suburban cul-de-sac, part of a small subdivision a half-mile across a farm field from Grand Island's sprawling Case New Holland farm equipment plant.

So far, about 25 households that draw water from their own private wells have had such high levels of contamination that residents have been told not to drink or shower with the water. Showers can vaporize the toxic contaminants, making them even more dangerous.

Another 10 nearby households have been advised to drink bottled water, and more tests are under way.

All have questions about the future of their homes.

State officials suspect that the two industrial solvents found in abundance in the private wells used by Schwan and her neighbors - tetrachloroethylene and 1,1-dichloroethylene - may be linked to chemicals buried at the adjacent Case New Holland plant.

The investigation into the contaminated groundwater began more than a year ago, when the City of Grand Island detected modestly high levels of one of the solvents in a municipal well in the south-central part of town, said Gary Mader, director of utilities.

The well was shut down and the city began testing surrounding residential wells, Mader said. Those tests revealed very high levels of contamination. A third round of tests was conducted, producing the results that residents began receiving late last week.

The results have city officials scrambling to extend Grand Island's municipal water lines to serve the affected residents.

About 20 homeowners attended a City Council meeting Tuesday night. Officials told them it may be possible to have the extension done by 2004.

Determining who is responsible for the contamination will require a lengthy investigation, state and local officials said.

Case New Holland has manufactured combines on the nearby plant site since 1964.

Bob Zimmerman, who works on environmental cleanup for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, said the chemicals found in the homeowners' wells are the same as those found in soil and groundwater at the Case plant.

Case officials deny that the plant is the source. They say that the homes are not in the path of groundwater flow and that water tests around the perimeter of the plant's property have not indicated contamination.

"There are no absolutes in any of this," said Jeff Walsh, company spokesman.

But the company has been working with the state on a voluntary cleanup of the site and has agreed to provide local residents with bottled water.

Neighbors along Mary Lane are drinking the bottled water, arranging for showers at neighbors or local churches, and wondering whether they can use dishes and clothes that were washed in the contaminated water.

"What do you do? We're stuck, we're really stuck," said another neighbor, Ed Luhn, who moved into the area three years ago.

A test done then showed no nitrate problems, but it didn't measure for the solvents now found in his water. Last week, a test of his water showed 110 parts per billion of tetrachloroethylene -- 22 times the health standard -- and 120 parts per billion of 1,1-dichloroethylene -- about 17 times the standard.

Neighbors, Luhn said, will have to decide whether it's safe to water lawns since that puts vapor into the air. They wonder whether it's safe to flush a toilet, because that could put vapor into the air.

"We shouldn't even be living here," said Luhn's next-door neighbor, Elaine Markham.

The health concerns are the scariest, residents said.

Schwan said that she has had migraine headaches for five months and that her husband has been battling a rare immunity disorder for 21/2 years.

Luhn said his wife, Cindy, and their 10-year-old son, Nick, have had headaches.

Luhn, a staff sergeant with the Army National Guard, returned September 26 from a yearlong deployment to Bosnia.

Ironically, he drank bottled water for a year and said he longed to get back to Grand Island where he could drink tap water and "get back to a clean city."

Said Markham, his neighbor: "You were probably safer back in Bosnia than your family is here."

Tetrachloroethylene is a man-made chemical used in dry cleaning and metals manufacturing. Exposures to high levels can cause dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty speaking and walking, unconsciousness and death. The chemical "may reasonably be anticipated" to cause cancer. The EPA's maximum level in drinking water is 5 parts per billion. Some Grand Island wells tested as high as 190 parts per billion.

1,1-dichloroethylene is a manmade colorless liquid used in adhesives and to make flame retardant and plastics such as food wrap. Acute exposure may cause loss of breath or fainting. Longtime exposure to lower levels can damage nervous system, lungs or liver. It is a possible carcinogen. The EPA has set a drinking water standard of 7 ppb. Some Grand Island wells tested at 170 ppb.

Source: U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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