Andrews residents wary for health after most recent town water woes

Wellhouse 1 and the now defective air stripper supplied by Raytheon. The air stripper is the white building.
Wellhouse 1 and the now defective air stripper supplied by Raytheon. The air stripper is the white building. Photo provided.

Andrews’ resident Crystal McCoart has taught her children to brush their teeth twice a day and to always wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating. The children love swimming and playing on slip and slides. But, now, at the opportunity to swim in a pool, her 6-year-old son asks, “Is it poison, Mommy?”

On Friday, June 19, residents of the Town of Andrews were told the water was unsafe for any use including hand and body washing, laundry, dishes, and cooking. Even boiled water and chlorinated water in pools were unsafe.

The property is currently owned by the Raytheon Corporation. In the early 1990s, United Tech installed an air stripper in Wellhouse 1, the main well supplying the town, because of high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Volatile organic compounds are poisonous vapors released into the air from chemicals. In March of 2012, due to complaints from residents regarding water taste and odor, the town shut down Wellhouse 1 and began using Wellhouses 2 and 3.

In May 2020 Wellhouses 2 and 3 did not have enough pressure to supply the town and the fire department, so on May 7, Wellhouse 1 was re-opened even though VOC contaminates were 10 times over the maximum contaminant for drinking water as Council President John Harshbargar stated in an affidavit requesting emergency clean-up.

After taking several tests, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management ordered, on Wednesday, July 1, that the drinking ban could be lifted after the town proved in writing that Wellhouse 1 was shut down.

Impact on Residents

While the situation appears to be in its waning hours, the immediate impact for the community was realizing how much water they consume.

Phyllis Paxton, 30-year resident, said her daughter only drinks tea and water, while her construction-working husband probably drinks a 40-pack of water a day. Residents Jamie Adkison and Toby Little realized they use three-quarters of a bottle just to brush their teeth, and Crystal McCoart says it takes two bottles to wash hands.

As far as keeping children clean, McCoart uses baby wipes to clean grime from playing outside and eating Cheetos. For showers, the YMCA in Huntington is open, or residents are risking cold showers at home out of the need for convenience.

To avoid washing dishes, people use disposable items. Residents were given a $10 voucher to do laundry at Northside Cleaners in Huntington, or Loads of Love will wash one load on Wednesdays with an appointment.

Pets are impacted as well. Doug Hutchison, who owns Bud’s Sports Bar, said his dog began vomiting regularly at the beginning of May. Since town residents were not informed about the tainted water, Hutchison changed its food and started using bottled water.

Paxton shared that her big dog drinks two gallons of water a day, but she’s really concerned about the timing as one of her Chihuahuas began drinking constantly and was diagnosed with diabetes late in May.

Houseplants have been destroyed. Katherine Yoder has grown numerous plants over the years using Andrews water; however, in May, she lost more than a third of her plants. While not scientifically proven, the plants began to die at the time Wellhouse 1 was back in use.

Economic Impact
The owners of Kermit’s Food Shop and Bud’s Sports Bar both said that the biggest impact for them is the inconvenience of cooking and cleaning with bottled water. Each business buys several cases of water daily. For Kermit’s, they are sanitizing cooking surfaces and dishes with bleach and using bottled water for cooking. Bud’s only uses bottled water for all tasks.

Another concern is property values. Kermit’s has been in Toby Little’s family for years, and he’s not going anywhere. Hutchison purchased Bud’s in 2017 and has invested in improvements. He plans to stay in Andrews but really has no other option.

Adkison said a relative took possession of their new home on June 18. They haven’t been able to do any of the chores associated with moving into a new residence.

Through many generous donations from Huntington and surrounding counties, residents have been able to pick up two cases of water at the municipal building daily. Along with the water, citizens receive paper and food products.

Frustrations
A pervading theme from the residents is communication from local and state government has not been transparent or forthcoming. For example, the town council knew Wellhouse 1 was open in May before its scheduled meeting on May 11, but residents were not informed of the change then. Normal water use continued until June 19 when the emergency order was declared.

Even State Rep. Andy Zay has questioned the Andrews’ council members lack of communication. His direct calls have gone unanswered. Zay also arranged for Meijer to deliver two loads of bottled water to the community. Council members declined the offer as so many other generous donations had been made.

Additionally, the Town of Andrews has filed an emergency lawsuit against Raytheon and its subsidiaries. While residents agree with this action, they are frustrated because council members and employees will not respond to questions because of the lawsuit.

As far as the lawsuit goes, Raytheon petitioned and had the case moved to federal court. Andrews officials succeeded in having the case remanded to Huntington County as of Monday.

Residents believe IDEM officials did not thoroughly investigate the situation when they were informed. Residents also believe IDEM also did not carefully oversee the clean-up ordered in the early ‘90s.

On Tuesday, June 30, IDEM and the town council notified residents that follow up testing shows the water is now safe as long as residents flush their pipes. Residents are leery of the water and are uncertain of the procedure for pipe flushing. Many residents are taking their tap water to a private company for testing.

Current situation

Hutchison, who in addition to owning Bud’s Sports Bar, is a biology major at Purdue Fort Wayne. He has created a file of all documentation he can find related to contaminated water in Andrews. He has made the documents available to all residents through a link on Andrews Citizens News and Events Facebook page. (Statistics in this article came from Hutchison’s collection.)

Todd Nightenhelser, TCB Games’ owner in Huntington, has offered the following solution through his resources. Each residence would have a 270-gallon tank and pump on their property, and it would remain filled with water from Huntington County or other sources for a year. The initial cost would be around $150,000 could be funded through the State Revolving Fund. This a low-interest loan for communities to use to improve wastewater. Residents would continue to pay their water bills in order to repay the loan. Andrews City Council has not responded to this solution. The next meeting is July 13.

Residents love their small community, and as McCoart said, “I don’t want to see the town shut down, but we need action.”

Hutchison echoed that thought, noting “We need transparency from all parties involved.”

However, both agreed that a permanent solution is necessary: safe water and no bandages.