Hills to vote on public water system

Measure would address city's longstanding concerns about perchlorate

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The first time 61-year-old  Hills resident Leslie Slaughter found out about her town's water contamination problem was roughly eight years ago.

Now, nine years after the Environmental Protection Agency discovered the chemical perchlorate in some of Hills' drinking water, the town of less than 800 is just one ballot measure away from installing a public water system that was voted down by the public in 2007 due to its cost.

But with a state revolving fund loan for $4.63 million to cover the cost of the project, city leaders are hopeful residents of Hills will vote to install a public water system that will ensure clean water for its residents and make the town more attractive to developers and small business owners.

The town currently operates on wells, and residents pay only for the electricity it takes to run the water to their home.

And despite the costs that would come along with paying a monthly water bill, Slaughter said she supports the ballot measure.

"Going forward, the city has been looking toward some kind of public water supply, which I wholeheartedly agree with as long as it's an acceptable cost," Slaughter said.

Perchlorate, which is defined as a naturally occurring and man-made chemical used to produce rocket fuel, fireworks, and other explosives by the EPA, can hinder hormone production in the thyroid. The EPA first discovered the chemical in some of Hills' drinking water in 2003. Since then, the city has been working toward a solution.

After the discovery of the chemical, the EPA supplied bottled water to the homes affected for a period of time until the city installed reverse-osmosis systems in about 23 homes that had unsafe levels of perchlorate. That number has since grown to about 28 homes, as the chemical continues to move east, from the southwest corner of town where Hills shoots off its yearly fireworks. The systems cost the city about $7,500 to maintain, annually.

Hills Mayor Tim Kemp said the exact cost of the public water system is hard to determine since the city has not spoken to engineers for a bid, but he said the $4.63 million state revolving fund loan would cover the project, which would include a water treatment plant, underground piping, and hooking everyone in town up to the system. He said the city has also received $1.9 million in the form of a forgivable loan that would not need to be repaid.

He estimated that the public water system would cost residents a maximum of about $52 a month on their water bill, adding that he feels people are more receptive to the idea this time around.

"I think people have been pretty positive at (our hearings). We see a lot of people nodding that maybe this is the right time to do this," Kemp said. "I think people have asked good questions and seem to be fairly positive but, again, you're asking people to take on a payment they haven't had before."

If the measure is not passed, the city would likely opt to build cluster wells for homes currently affected by perchlorate, which would cost the city between $400,000 and $1.5 million, Kemp said.

That option would involve digging deeper wells, and would still leave the water susceptible to other contaminants, according to Mike Gannon, a geologist with the DNR's Geological Survey Bureau. The city would also need to build more wells as the chemical moves east, and would be required to try to clean the groundwater affected by the perchlorate. Because the perchlorate plume is about half a mile long and 600 feet wide, Gannon said such a venture would be costly and difficult.

Gannon said that not solving the water contamination project could inhibit economic development in Hills.

"It (contamination) actually inhibits grown and inhibits people from wanting to move to Hills," Gannon said, adding known-contamination issues are also a turn-off to potential businesses. "It's the perception if there's a known contamination issue in the area, all of a sudden mothers say 'I don't want my son or daughter drinking this water.'"

Because the perchlorate is confined to a shallow sand layer in the upper part of the ground, the city would dig wells in the lower, unaffected  part of the ground over 100 feet deeper for the public water system, Gannon said. That water is protected by two layers of clay that protect the aquifer and prevent the perchlorate from spreading to that water.

"The bottom line is it's going to cost the city something, and the cost of not putting a public water system in is going to mean a lot of money the city spends is going to be to try to clean this up. So if they're getting a grant that lowers the cost to the city in the long run, this could end up being a bargain," Gannon said. "Plus you're going to have a brand new infrastructure and water system that protects you not only from perchlorate, but nitrates and gasoline."

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