State opts for bottled water over a fix
By Zachary Matson
Thursday is delivery day for the handful of Pitcairn homes near a state Department of Transportation salt barn on Route 3 at the western edge of the Adirondack Park.
The state agency keeps a running tab with a local water delivery company to supply the residents of at least four homes with one- and five-gallon plastic jugs and cases of bottled water.
Barbara Manchester, 77, grew up in Pitcairn. Her father hauled ore from the mines. The home she has lived in for over 30 years is neat and organized: bookshelves of travel scrapbooks, covers on the stove burners, cheese and butter stacked in the refrigerator in a drawer beneath two rows of Blue Mountain Spring Water labeled as “cool, clean, crisp.”
Manchester relies on the Blue Mountain deliveries. She resides near a big rock salt pile and she can’t drink her tap water. After nearly 20 years of back and forth with state officials, the people living in a pocket of houses adjacent to the salt storage facility in Pitcairn get by on bottles containing water for drinking and cooking. The empties mount between deliveries.
“That’s the thing I get out of all the bottles, is the five-cent deposit,” Manchester said.
Fixing the problem in Dannemora
Pitcairn is not alone in getting state-supplied bottled water. Cheryle Saltmarsh’s home north of Dannemora shares the tell-tale signs of proximity to salt storage. Indeed, she lives across the street from a large concrete pad and a dome-shaped structure. Until 2018, Saltmarsh and around two dozen others in the area also received state-sponsored water deliveries.
But three years ago, Saltmarsh, 60, and her neighbors accomplished something the residents of Pitcarin have not. The state paid to fix the salt problem, hooking the Ledgers Corners residents to the water system at Clinton Correctional Facility, about four miles on the other side of Dannemora Mountain.
“The state will deliver them bottles of water forever, because it’s cheaper,” Saltmarsh said of Pitcairn.
After she moved to Ledgers Corners around 2011, the salt-contaminated water blackened the inside of her dishwasher and corroded pipes and faucets. She wonders about deaths and birth defects of farm animals. The problem predated Saltmarsh’s time in the area, but she organized neighbors, harangued local officials and testified in Albany. After eight years of pushing them, New York officials agreed to pay for the hookup at a project cost over $4 million.
“It took a lot of time, a lot of phone calls, a lot of screaming at people,” Saltmarsh said. “I didn’t give up.”
State Department of Environmental Conservation investigators began checking into the salt-contaminated wells in Ledgers Corners as early as June 1997, records show. DEC found sodium and chloride concentrations higher than 1,000 parts per million, well above water quality standards. In a letter, the DEC said investigators focused “on salt and sand/salt mixture stockpiling practices” at a nearby DOT facility, previously operated by Clinton County.
“We recognize that inadequate salt and sand/salt mixture stockpiling practices can contribute to elevated levels of chlorides and sodium in surrounding groundwater,” a DEC technician wrote.
A decades-long issue
State officials have long known about the risk of groundwater contamination near salt storage facilities. A January 1989 DEC memo noted the presence of cyanide in some road salt mixes, and highlighted the contamination risk of salt storage. Many storage facilities have been upgraded in the past to minimize runoff.
The residents in Pitcairn seem resigned to water deliveries. Steven and Joanna Roberts live and operate a mechanic’s garage on a property that has been plagued by salt problems for years. “My biggest thing is: if they (the state DOT) won’t take any responsibility for it, then why do we keep getting free water from them?” Steven Roberts asked.
The previous owners of the Roberts property first noticed the salt problem when a washing machine broke down on Thanksgiving Day in 2002. The state tested the well, finding excessive salt levels.
For homeowners with still undrinkable water due to road salt contamination, New York’s strict time limits make it nearly impossible to challenge the state in court
Pictured here: Carina Moore with her sons, Ziggy and Tahj, at their home in Gabriels in the northern Adirondacks. The Moore family’s well has been tainted by road salt. Photo by Mike Lynch/Adirondack Explorer
“At the present time, it appears that the salt contamination may be due to past salt storage practices at our maintenance facility near your home,” DOT wrote to residents in 2003. DOT promised bottled water as “a temporary measure only.” It also warned that “should we determine that we are not the source of the problem, the water will be discontinued.”
When tested in May 2004, Manchester’s well water showed chloride concentrations three times target levels and sodium levels over four times recommended. Her sodium levels were 23 times higher than the level recommended for people on a severely-restricted sodium diet, according to a notice from DOT.
DOT drilled new wells at the storage facility and a neighboring property, but salt content again rose above acceptable levels. Attempts to connect the residents to the Harrisville (now Town of Diana) water system have been stymied by jurisdictional hurdles and a lack of funding. Manchester said during a 2017 meeting she and neighbors agreed to pay twice the water rates as people already using the town water system. A $2 million project to hook the homes and a handful of non-contaminated properties into the nearby water system waits on a list for state funding.
“We have fought the state for 20 years now, and they don’t want to pay for anything. We can’t afford to fund anything like that, and why the hell should we? We didn’t cause the contamination.”— Pitcairn Supervisor Clyde “Sam” Frank Jr.
DOT spokesperson Joseph Morrissey said his department is providing a few residents water “out of caution,” while looking into “long term solutions to resolve this issue.”
The state covered its salt pile in Pitcairn in 1990, he said.
Pitcairn residents said they have heard little from state officials after two decades of living with tainted water. Manchester said it is obvious who should fix the problem. “The state is the one,” she said.
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