116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NICHOLS — Four years ago, John O’Connell was told the water at his house was finally safe to drink.
For more than a decade, an agricultural company had supplied him and some of his neighbors with bottled water while it attempted to clean the nitrate, herbicides and pesticides from the soil of its former location not far from O’Connell’s backyard.
In December 2018, the now-Colorado company sent him a letter with “good news.”
It said testing by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources “found the amount of nitrate in the drinking water is now below the Iowa drinking water standard,” indicating that there were no more potential health hazards from consuming it.
It said the deliveries of bottled water would cease in two weeks.
O’Connell has been drinking his tap water ever since. The problem is that the amount of nitrate in his water is now higher than it was in that final Iowa DNR test four years ago.
Nichols, a town of about 340 southwest of Iowa City, is among an unknown number of smaller communities in the state where residents use individual, shallow wells for their drinking water. Because they are so shallow — usually less than 30 feet deep — the wells are highly susceptible to contamination.
The state doesn’t maintain a list of similar Iowa towns, but department officials can recall several in the area of Nichols. One of them was Hills, about 13 miles from Nichols. The city switched to a municipal water supply about 10 years ago. The Iowa DNR had determined that a cache of fireworks — which had been buried after a torrential storm soaked the explosives before its Fourth of July celebration — had contaminated the city’s groundwater. The new public water system cost about $5 million at the time.
But despite the Iowa DNR’s recommendation that Nichols also switch to a city-treated water system, the shallow wells remain.
A recent test of O’Connell’s water by a county public health department — which he requested at the suggestion of Iowa Capital Dispatch — showed that the water has a nitrate concentration that exceeds federal safety standards.
Nitrate limits the amount of oxygen in blood and is particularly dangerous for infants who can suffer from “blue baby syndrome” if they consume too much. It also has been linked to cancers and thyroid disease and might be harmful to fetuses.
Years ago, the Iowa DNR had been testing O’Connell’s water every three months. But as soon as the water dipped below the standard, the state ceased the samplings. The department made that decision despite regular fluctuations in the nitrate concentrations and a recommendation from the testing company to continue.
“They told us it’s safe,” O’Connell said. “It’s excellent, crystal-clear water.”
Nichols is situated among crop fields in a low-lying area of southeast Iowa. The water table beneath the surface is so high that residents can ram pipes about 15 feet into the ground to pump water for their homes.
There are no state regulations that govern how deep those wells need to be and no warning for new residents who might purchase those homes later.
About 25 years ago — after at least one of the town’s residents tested a well and found it was contaminated by farm chemicals — the Iowa DNR sampled most of the town’s wells and found that about 50 of them had nitrate concentrations that exceeded federal safety standards. About 18 of the residential wells had unsafe amounts of the herbicide alachlor, and four had excessive levels of the herbicide atrazine.
Long-term exposure to alachlor can damage the liver, kidneys, spleen and eyes and might cause cancer. Atrazine is a hormone disrupter that can negatively affect unborn children and has been linked to a variety of cancers.
The Iowa DNR suspected two local agricultural suppliers of contaminating the groundwater. After one of them refused to aid the state’s investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and declared Nichols a “Superfund site.”
That led to years of water sampling and soil mitigation. Residents with unsafe wells were supplied with filtration systems or bottled water.
Over time, the town’s collective memory of the water troubles has faded. The city clerk, for example, who has lived in Nichols for six years and married someone who grew up there, said in a recent interview he had no idea about the contamination.
The fact that neither of the two companies believed to be the sources of contamination were fined gnaws at some. One of the companies had closed its facility and razed all of its buildings about a decade before the Iowa DNR and EPA investigations.
“It had the look of a cover-up,” said Darrell Mattingly, a former Nichols mayor and restaurant owner who now lives in Muscatine.
A complacent community
Years before the state started looking into Nichols, there were indications of troubling groundwater pollution. The south side of town was underwater in 1993, when repeated heavy rains caused widespread flooding in the Midwest.
As a result, Muscatine County health officials tested wells in the area for bacteria and nitrate and found most of them had unsafe nitrate levels. But nothing was done.
The Iowa DNR launched a larger investigation into the contamination in March 1997 that included a citywide survey of the private wells. That was spurred by a resident’s complaint about well contamination.
As the state prepared for the testing, it sought support from the community that would be crucial for it to be successful. Representatives of the Iowa DNR and the state public health department met with the Nichols City Council, its mayor and lawmakers.
The efforts were publicized by local media, and in July 1997, the Iowa DNR held a town meeting attended by about two dozen residents. It lasted about 90 minutes. The public officials stressed that pregnant women and young children were most at risk.
The state had garnered enough support for the testing, and later in July, a team of state and county officials went door-to-door to sample the town’s water. The results showed a definitive pattern of contamination — a plume that was apparently moving east to west through the town’s groundwater.
Monsanto, a prominent producer of the chemicals that had invaded the water, said it would tap into its Well Assistance Program to install charcoal filters at homes and would consider helping fund a public water system.
Those filters are effective at eliminating the threat of pesticides but do nothing for nitrate. Monsanto offered them to 24 residents, along with a two-year supply of filters and said it would retest the water once each year.
A community water supply could draw deeper, less-contaminated water and treat it more effectively, but it would cost millions. It was the surest way to solve the town’s water quality issues.
In the meantime, the Iowa DNR planned more sampling of the areas that were likely the source of contamination.
Most of the town’s sandpoint wells were completely unregulated by the state when they were installed. They are created by driving metal pipe that is typically less than 2 inches in diameter into the sandy, low-lying ground near rivers, where the water table is relatively close to the surface.
In October 1997, surveys were mailed to each house to gauge the level of interest in a public water supply. About 60 percent of those who responded said they favored the idea. But by that time, Monsanto had decided it was unlikely to contribute money to fund the project.
Some in town were miffed by the state’s insistence that they move forward with the project. In particular, the Iowa DNR officer who was the main liaison to the town had “a swagger to him that wasn’t a good swagger,” recalled Mattingly, the former mayor.
By February 1998, the plan had completely fizzled.
“It is my understanding that persons on the City Council have suggested to (the Iowa DNR liaison) that he not return to Nichols,” an attorney who represented one of the companies suspected of contamination wrote to the state.
Residents were ambivalent about their water, and the chief of Iowa DNR’s Compliance and Enforcement Bureau noted that problem in an emailed response to the attorney:
“The citizens are not drinking safe water,” wrote Michael Murphy. “The filters provided by Monsanto will remove pesticides; they do nothing for nitrate, and if not closely maintained, may exacerbate bacterial problems. That is not a permanent solution.”
Some in town figured they had been drinking the water all their lives and hadn’t suffered any negative health effects. Others knew the water was bad and didn’t drink it, and they didn’t want to spend a bunch of money to fix the problem.
“We just deal with it,” said Heather Bixby, who bought her house more than 20 years ago and raised four kids there. “I don’t want to worry about a high water bill.”
She first moved to town with her parents as a teen and later bought the house next door. Both homes are near one of the contaminated sites and until about four years ago, the family had their wells tested every three months to monitor the nitrate levels.
Bixby said she buys packs of water from a Walmart in Muscatine to drink.
For years before the state and federal investigations into Nichols’ groundwater contamination, it was apparent that something was amiss on the west side of town where the now-razed Amoco Cropmate site was located.
A farmer had noted to the Iowa DNR that “not many weeds grow in this area.” O’Connell, the neighbor of Bixby who had lived there since 1984, had noticed it, too.
“The ground was pretty much dead for a long time,” he said. “Nothing would grow.”
Amoco had been bought by United Agri Products by the turn of the century, and it, along with Monsanto, largely complied with requests from the state to help remedy the situation.
Amoco had operated at the 7.5-acre site from 1967 to 1987, according to Iowa DNR records. Historical aerial photos of the site showed it had three buildings with three large holding tanks, 10 smaller tanks and trailer-mounted tanks that were thought to contain fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
The entire site was razed in 1987, and the state later found that “soil removal action taken when Cropmate left the site in 1987 was not as complete as initially indicated.”
United Agri Products indicated it had no records of significant spills of the products there. “Small spills and leaks common to such an operation likely occurred, but were addressed by employees at the time of occurrence,” the company reported.
About a year after the start of the Iowa DNR’s investigation — in February 1998 — United installed nine monitoring wells to test for contaminants. Initial test results showed significant nitrate contamination of up to 419 parts per million. That is about 42 times the federal threshold of what is safe to drink — 10 parts per million.
Late that year, United began supplying bottled water to 13 households in the southern part of town. Two residents who were offered the free water declined it. Those deliveries of water continued for 20 years as the company and the Iowa DNR waited for nitrate concentrations to decline to a safe level.
In May 2001, the company planted 900 hybrid poplar trees on the property to help clean the soil, at the direction of the EPA. The next month, the EPA declared Nichols a Superfund site, which enabled the agency to take action against United Agri Products and Nichols Agriservice.
Nichols Agriservice, which still operates just north of the former Amoco site but is under different ownership, was initially reluctant to aid the investigations and blamed nearby farmers and flooding for the town’s problems.
An attorney for Nichols Agriservice accused the Iowa DNR of targeting the company against the wishes of the town. The company is the largest employer in Nichols.
“No constructive action has been taken to address the groundwater contamination on the north part of Nichols,” the Iowa DNR wrote to the EPA in September 1998. “Nichols Agriservice, the potential responsible party for the Nichols Agriservice site, has resisted taking any meaningful action to investigate the extent and potential source(s) of the groundwater contamination.”
The company had been among the first in the state to install a concrete containment structure to hold its fertilizer and herbicide tanks to prevent spillage into the soil, although the Iowa DNR discovered notable cracks in the structure. It was built in 1987, when the state first required the containment structures.
In December 2000, nearly three years after the start of the investigations, Nichols Agriservice agreed to install four monitoring wells and subsequently constructed a new building to house its herbicide and fertilizer products.
Initial test results showed nitrate contaminations as high as 34 parts per million — about three times what is considered the safe limit.
In a November 2001 administrative agreement with the EPA, Nichols Agriservice said it would continue to monitor the groundwater and remove contaminated soil from its property. Four months later, the company excavated 300 tons of contaminated soil from its property — roughly 10 times more than it had expected to remove.
Nichols Agriservice was subsequently sold to new owners. The former Amoco Cropmate has been succeeded by at least two companies, most recently Nutrien Ag Solutions, of Loveland, Colo.
Neither company was ultimately fined for contaminating the groundwater. It’s unclear how much they spent to mitigate the contaminations of their sites.
Matt Culp, a senior environmental specialist for the Iowa DNR’s contaminated sites division, said there were a confluence of uncommon factors that led to the groundwater contaminations. The facilities released the chemicals into the ground on the west side of town, where they flowed east with ease in a shallow, sandy aquifer.
“It’s an issue that’s kind of timeless,” Culp said. “These sites kind of resurface every once in a while.”
State testing ceases
The water quality issues in Nichols “would be less likely to exist if the state had a law which would require wells to be at least 30 feet deep,” an Iowa DNR officer noted early in the state’s investigation.
Culp disagrees. It’s true that shallower wells are more likely to be at risk of contamination, but there are other factors to consider.
“The real world is just more complicated than to say, ‘Thou shalt always drill to this depth,’” he said.
When the Iowa DNR assesses the susceptibility of community water supplies, it focuses on the thickness of the confining layer that lies between the land surface and the water aquifer. That layer is made of materials such as clay and shale that slow the flow of water. Aquifers with confining layers thinner than 25 feet are considered highly susceptible to contamination. Aquifers have low susceptibility when the layers are at least 100 feet.
Alluvial aquifers like the one beneath Nichols do not have a confining layer. And sandpoint wells have no depth requirements under Iowa law.
“We don’t recommend people install them or use them for drinking water,” said Erik Day, who oversees the state’s private well permit program.
The state started to require permits to construct private wells about 20 years ago — long after the sandpoint wells of Nichols were driven into the ground — and wells in basements are no longer allowed.
Drilled wells are often required to be at least 40 feet deep but in certain situations can be as shallow as 20 feet.
The Iowa DNR does not track which towns rely primarily on sandpoint wells. Most residents of Fruitland, a town of about 950 that lies 12 miles southeast of Nichols, have them, and many of the wells have nitrate concentrations that exceed safety thresholds, according to county tests.
The Iowa DNR asked the EPA to take over the Nichols investigation and cleanup in late 1998 — about two years after it began. The EPA oversaw it for about 16 years, until all that remained was long-term monitoring of a handful of residential wells near the former Cropmate site. The EPA asked the state to resume its oversight role in 2014.
By 2016, just one of the residential wells had nitrate concentrations that exceeded the federal drinking water standard: John O’Connell’s.
That year, his quarterly tests showed concentrations of 11, 13, 11 and 9.3 parts per million. The final test was below the 10 parts per million safety threshold, but the company that was testing the water, Cardno, recommended the testing continue.
Five days after that letter, the Iowa DNR released Crop Production Services (now known as Nutrien Ag Solutions) from its testing requirements.
But in September 2022, O’Connell’s water had nitrate in a concentration of 10.6 parts per million. Culp suspects that agricultural fertilizers that are applied to farmland near Nichols is a likely contributor to that contamination.
“If a well that was previously below — has finally fallen below the standard — starts to show a trend, or if it bumps up a little bit over 10, we don’t rush back in there,” Culp said. “We just don’t have the resources or the time to do that. What would draw us back into a situation like that would be that if there were reported to us a growing trend of nitrate, in this case, concentrations that were beginning to impact the town again.”
Municipal water unlikely
There has not been a concerted effort to retest the town’s wells for contamination.
Private well owners in Iowa can often have their water tested by county officials for free, but only a handful have done so in Nichols in the four years since the Iowa DNR’s sampling ceased. The tests measure concentrations of nitrate and bacteria.
There were no tests of Nichols water by Muscatine County in 2019 or 2020, county records show. There were four tests in 2021, and one of them revealed unsafe nitrate levels in a well about one block south of O’Connell’s house. In 2022, there were two tests, including O’Connell’s that showed unsafe nitrate concentrations. County records did not include data from the last month and a half of that year.
It’s unlikely that Nichols will have municipal water service in the near future.
Aeneas Schmitz, the city clerk, said city leaders are focused on a sewer project that is expected to cost about $1.3 million and might begin this year. The work would include repairing sewer lines that have the potential to leak into the groundwater that residents drink. Schmitz said there has been no serious talk about a municipal water system and that he didn’t know what it might cost to build one.
There are two municipal water supplies within about five miles to which Nichols could potentially connect. To the north is West Liberty, a city of about 3,800 that Water Superintendent Danny Goodale said lacks the capacity to provide water to Nichols. To the west is Lone Tree, a city of about 1,300. Lone Tree City Clerk Steph Dautremont said she didn’t know whether the town could provide water to Nichols. She said there have been no discussions about such an arrangement.
Nichols’ elected city leaders have not responded to multiple requests to comment.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.