Harshbarger worried and frustrated as Andrews battles water crisis

John Harshbarger
TAB file photo.

John Harshbarger is a worried man. That’s second only to the frustration he feels, as the president of the Andrews Town Council, over the month-long water crisis that resulted in him calling a town public health emergency and issuing a “Do Not Drink” order to its residents.

During a recent phone interview, Harshbarger said the town tested the water from its wells and found evidence of two carcinogenic substances in the drinking water, all trouble broke loose when the town, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Raytheon Technologies began pointing fingers and laying blame for a water pollution issue that’s been going on for some 26 years. He wants Raytheon to make it right.

A history of contamination

The problem stems from when the United Technologies Corporation (UTC) automotive factory was located in Andrews. There is no dispute that pollution was left behind when the factory was shut down. But Harshbarger says efforts over the years to clean up the area by Raytheon Technologies, which bought out UTC, have failed.

The town shut Well 1 down on June 22, after town officials found 15 times the allowable amounts of vinyl chloride plus another chemical, known as TCE in it, Harshbarger says. That leaves only two other wells from which residents can obtain drinking water. IDEM gave the town an all-clear after it made its tests on the wells. The town disagrees with IDEM and Harshbarger says Well 1 has not been reopened.

“The reason we had two rounds of testing is because the first round of testing showed we had a problem,” he explains. “We had two parts per million of vinyl chloride in the final drinking water, all the way at the end of our distribution system. Two parts per million is the maximum.

“When it’s that close, you don’t say it’s OK, as far as I’m concerned, and as far as the people of Andrews are concerned. They’re not OK with that.”

As part of its ongoing reclamation process, Raytheon installed an air stripper to remove contaminants from the well water, before it goes on to the town’s water treatment plant. Harshbarger alleges the air stripper quit working when there was a power outage in the town in June. However he says the town was not notified of any breakdowns.

He says he has been told the air stripper is working again, but adds he doesn’t know for sure because Raytheon owns and also maintains the equipment, and the town has no control over it.

In 2015, during a meeting between IDEM and Stantec, a contractor hired by UTC/Raytheon, the town was assured the contamination had not reached the well field. But Harshbarger adds that Well No. 1 was already testing positive for harmful chemicals and the situation is worse now than when Raytheon began the reclamation process back in 1994.
“In the last eight years, it’s gone from around 15 micrograms to around 30.3 on our last test during this last episode,” he says. “It’s just ridiculous that IDEM has not stepped up and helped us to move forward with this. They’ve allowed Raytheon to stay within a voluntary remediation program for all this time. It was supposed to be remediated; instead, it’s 15 times what it was when it started 26 years ago.

On June 19, the Town of Andrews filed suit in Huntington County Superior Court. The town, including nearly 80 individual plaintiffs, charges Raytheon Technologies with counts of trespass, nuisance, negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent failure to warn and environmental legal action.

Harshbarger says former employees of the now abandoned UTC plant in Andrews have come forward to admit under oath they were told to dump various chemicals on the ground outside the factory’s walls.

When asked about any health problems among residents as a result of the incidents, Harshbarger says that is “another part of the equation that will be answered later,” along with expert witnesses and documentation to bear out the town’s case.

He wrote two letters to John Baron, remediation project manager of Raytheon Technologies, advising him of the employees’ testimonies and refuting statements he says Raytheon made that are false, including one that states there is no water emergency in Andrews. Harshbarger says, after flushing the town’s water lines, tests show there is still vinyl chloride in the drinking water in Wells 2 and 3.

The letters, as well as other documents, are posted on the town’s website, andrewsindiana.net.

What the town wants

The town seeks punitive damages, with the suit asking the court to order Raytheon to pay plaintiffs an amount that will compensate them for their past and prospective damages. A specific dollar amount was not listed in the original filing.

The town also wants the court to order the defendants to upgrade the town’s water supply and treatment system, including installation of new water supply wells that are vertically or horizontally separated from the groundwater contamination; upgrading the air stripper system, including and adding in redundancies and in the interim, providing safe drinking water for the residents of Andrews by supplying the residents with bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

They also seek an order for Raytheon to remove the contamination, including all groundwater contamination and related vapors, that emanated from the UTC Facility and/or the gasoline station and now exists on the plaintiffs’ properties and in the town’s utility lines to non-detect levels.

But the main compensation the Town of Andrews wants is for Raytheon Technologies to move the three wells to a clean aquifer outside the contamination area.

“That’s not something that would be hard for them to do,” he contends. “Why would they continue to fight the removal of this contamination with an air stripper, when they could simply move the wells outside of the plume (of contaminated groundwater)?”

Andrews also wants Raytheon to become more aggressive in its cleanup of groundwater, as well as address fumes that Harshbarger says are coming from contamination that has leeched up from underneath residents’ homes.

“This has happened for years,” he adds.

The town also wants what Harshbarger calls “some redundancy in the air stripper,” a backup system in the event that the power is out or equipment malfunctions that will continue to filter out the contaminants.

“We would also like to see them (Raytheon) reimburse the town for their expenses as far as water and so forth are concerned, because we bought water in addition to having a lot of donated water,” he says. “I would like to see them provide the water and the distribution of the water until we have safe wells to pump from.”

What happens next

There has been no court date as yet, because four judges – including two special judges – have recused themselves from presiding over the case, Harshbarger says. That only adds to his frustration in the middle of the emergency.

“We have a lot of low and moderate income families in town and this is not a burden that they should have to bear,” he says. “They don’t trust the water now; they don’t trust Raytheon. I don’t think they trust anybody right now. I can’t blame them.”

Harshbarger is also concerned what will happen when school starts back up soon. Andrews Elementary school will receive bottled drinking water for the foreseeable future.

“It’s very frustrating when you know school is getting ready to start and we can’t even get a court date for an emergency process like this,” he says.

He hopes the issue can be settled soon, but he vows not to give up.

“We’re just going to fight and I’m going to continue to fight it,” he promises. “Our council is behind this and what we’d really like to see is those who don’t feel we’re doing a good job or whatever, they need to step back and review their facts and stand behind us, because this has been a long battle, and it’s time we got something done for the community. …

“When you’re fighting IDEM and a $121 billion company, it gets a little bit worrisome, I guess you could say.”