IDEM Report Clears up Misconceptions about Charlestown Water

Many of us have seen brown water swirling out of our faucets lately, sparking renewed questions around who can be held responsible. How can we filter out the facts from the talking points?

The facts show that Mayor Bob Hall neglected his responsibility to manage Charlestown’s public water system during his last three terms as mayor since 2008.

An inspection of our water system by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) on December 19, 2018 found “significant deficiencies” that can “cause an immediate health risk.” The Inspection Summary Letter dated January 7, 2019 also lists problems that had been identified during previous inspections but were never corrected. You can read the letter here: Inspection Summary Letter (Some photos in the original letter were redacted by IDEM in my public record request due to Homeland Security protocol.)

Bob Hall’s mismanagement of the water utility put our health and safety at risk.

  • Water Utility employees were exposed to hazardous circumstances while in the performance of their daily job duties. The report documents that the system had no “continuous chlorine analyzer” to warn operators of gas leaks (p. 6-7). Chlorine gas can cause significant damage to a person’s lungs and upper respiratory system. Also, the inspection showed that there was no water in the emergency eye wash station (p. 8). A mayor has the responsibility to provide for employee safety.
  • Community members have also been placed under significant health and safety risks under Bob Hall’s management. This includes water customers and those who visit Charlestown for church, school, or shopping.
    • The inspection shows that there was no Emergency Response Plan for our water utility. In the event of a major natural or human made disaster, there was no plan to maintain operation (p. 12).
    • We also had no back-up power generator in the event of extended power loss. This means we had no way to pump more water from the wells once our storage tanks emptied. One ice storm or tornado that knocked out power for several days could have left us without water in our tanks (p. 7). Bob Hall was notified of this problem in both 2013 and 2016. In 2013 he told IDEM that he had a plan to fix it, but by the date of the 2018 report it was still not repaired.
    • Our city is currently without proper fire protection. The inspection found “numerous” fire hydrants and valves throughout the city that do not work and noted that“these hydrants and valves are a necessity and must be replaced in order to fight fires” (p. 9). IDEM informed Bob Hall of this problem in both 2013 and 2016 but repairs were still not made by the time of the 2018 inspection. In 2011, when Bob Hall ran for reelection, he published a campaign ad that claimed he repaired the hydrants. The IDEM report raises questions about the accuracy of this ad. You can view that ad here: Bob Campaign Ad

Many of the deficiencies documented in IDEM’s inspection were within Bob Hall’s power to correct.

  • The report documents that Bob Hall received IDEM’s recommendation to install a back-up power generator for the wells in both 2013 and 2016 and confirms that Bob sent them a response saying that he would do so. However, Bob never corrected the problem (p. 5).
  • Needed repairs included basic housekeeping such as cleaning trash off the floor, removing old lead washers and dead insects, keeping containers properly stored, and repairing a rotted roof from a previous water leak (pp. 5-6).
  • Regular cleaning of the system was neglected. The report notes that storage tanks should have been inspected at least every five years. The inspector found debris and vegetation around the raw water basin and noted this as a “significant” problem. The report shows that Bob Hall was notified of this problem in 2010, 2013, 2016, and in 2018 but never fixed it (p. 11).

We need a filtration system.

  • The report notes on page 5 that our manganese levels averaged .29mg/L in 2018, which is significantly above the recommended standard of .05mg/L. IDEM confirms that filtration will “help with water quality and complaints of dirty water.” The report notes that Bob Hall received this recommendation in both 2013 and 2016 (pp 5 and 7). Representatives from Indiana American Water confirmed our need for filtration in the open house they hosted on May 22, 2019. In 2008, when Bob Hall took office he returned a grant that would have provided Charlestown with filtered water and stopped work on the filtration plant. (You can review the Board of Public Works meeting minutes where he ordered work on the filtration plant to stop here:Board of Public Works 01/02/2008) Bob chose instead to use chemical treatment beginning in 2011, which failed and was described at the IAW open house as “snake oil” for its known ineffectiveness. Keep in mind that the need for filtration does not do away with the need for new lines as well. We actually need BOTH for our system to be repaired. We also need all of our fire hydrants to work in order to flush the system properly.

We had the money to fix our system.

  • Money from our Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts could have been used to provide us with clean water. In 2011 a pamphlet distributed by Bob Hall estimated the cost of repairs to the system in the $2 million range (his ad above has the link to this pamphlet). By 2018 those estimates reached $7 million. From 2008 to 2018 the city spent $6,438,491 out of its TIF fund. Much of this money could have been invested in our water system. (You can review a spreadsheet that shows where the money went here: 2008-2018 TIF Spending Summary).
  • The IDEM report also acknowledges that small rate increases were needed to keep up with inflated maintenance costs. Had we received small increases over time, it wouldn’t have gotten to the point where we needed the large one (p. 13). This kind of management is the duty of the city’s executive. 

Since IAW purchased our water utility in March, they have been working to correct many of the things Bob Hall neglected. At the open house in May, IAW provided before and after pictures that showed that they have installed a chlorine detector, cleaned the building, and properly stored the treatment tanks. IAW also cleaned our wells and installed a back-up power generator after repairing the pump on well #1 which offers us the cleanest water. From the looks of things they have begun the process of cleaning the storage tank on Gospel Road, which may explain the increased incidents of brown water we are seeing in parts of town. At the open house they also said they are working on a plan to repair, replace, and add new fire hydrants across town since estimates show over 60 not working.

In the coming months as IAW works to repair Bob’s neglect, we will likely see things get worse before they get better. IAW knows we need filtered water and they know we need to clean our system. Their track record in fixing the things left unaddressed for a decade by Bob already gives me hope that they will eventually get us clean water.

Conversations about our water dominate most of our online and many of our in-person dialogues and have for a number of years. This IDEM report shows us things we never knew before and helps us clear up many of our misconceptions. This report filters the facts from the myths. Yes, we need filtration. Yes, we could have fixed it during Bob Hall’s time as mayor. Yes, Bob Hall had the knowledge and ability to repair it, but ignored IDEM’s warnings and notices.

So, how to spot the facts going forward?

  • Get your info from real experts, like people who can back up claims with evidence like the IDEM report.
  • Be skeptical when you hear people say that critiques like this are just “venom” or point to other actions like sidewalks or Christmas lights – these are logical fallacies designed to distract you from the issue at hand and are a sign that you should watch out!
  • Remember that the action or inaction of previous mayors isn’t the issue here. The facts show that Bob could have addressed these problems and didn’t. Other mayors are not running for reelection this year and Bob’s performance is what we’re measuring. This report shows a serious lack of proper management of a major responsibility of the Mayor’s office. 
  • Be wary of information that Bob shares without evidence to back it up. Remember that he made the decision to put a chemical in our water based primarily on information he received from the company that sells the chemical.

Moving forward, when you have brown water, run your cold water slowly until it clears. Do not turn on your hot water as the manganese will hurt your water heater. Check your water before you wash a load of clothes. And finally, remember Bob Hall’s performance record on this very basic function of his job and vote for change and responsibility in November. For more on what kind of change you can expect from me, I encourage you to check out the Infrastructure section of my plan for Charlestown here: https://trevaformayor.com/issues/.

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