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'Scary' nitrate levels near Conewago Creek after industrial fire

SEAN PHILIP COTTER
YorkDispatch


Consuming nitrates can cause babies to become seriously ill, or even die, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's website.

So you can understand why Carrie Soltis, mother of a 6-month-old, and Dan Clarke, father of a 5-month-old, have some concerns about the fact that the wells at their respective houses have several times the maximum safe level of nitrates.

The two families, neighbors in the 1100 block of Kunkle Mill Road in Warrington Township, have a question they say no one quite seems to know the answer to: Are these elevated nitrate levels a result of the massive fire that consumed an Adams County chemical plant last week, an event that contaminated the nearby Conewago Creek?

Soltis and her husband, Bobby, heard the news of the creek contamination and decided they should test their own well. When they did so Sunday, they found their well water contained 80 parts per million of nitrates — eight times the amount the EPA deems safe. About the same levels were found in the nearby creek, she said.

"It was scary," she said.

When they took to Google and discovered nitrates could harm babies, they quickly told the Clarkes, neighbors who they knew had a similarly aged child.

So the Clarkes tested their water, too, and found it had 60 ppm of nitrates.

Both families have turned to bottled water for the time being. The Soltises have five store-bought water canisters sitting just inside their front door.

Fire: On June 8, a huge fire, complete with small, colorful explosions from burning chemicals, consumed the Miller Chemical Building. The runoff from the blaze and the efforts to fight it ended up in a nearby creek that feeds into Conewago Creek. Officials said the runoff killed at least 10,000 fish in the creek last week, and discoloration from the dyes in the chemicals hasn't yet completely faded.

The creek hems in the families' pretty, tree-filled neighborhood on three sides — to the west, south and east — and it's not more than a couple acres away in any direction.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Repetz said the DEP has not yet compiled a full list of all the chemicals in the water, so it isn't releasing any specifics yet. He did say, though, that much of what officials have been seeing in the creek is water-soluble compounds often used in fertilizers.

Nitrates are nitrogen-oxygen compounds that fall into that classification, according to the EPA. So could the spill be the root of the nitrates in the creek, at least?

"That's a possibility," Repetz said. "But that could be something that's in the water every day."

There also are plenty of farms near that neighborhood, so the elevated nitrate levels could come from those fertilizers, he said.

Testing: Both Clarke and Soltis said they know that's the case — neither was keen to blame either the plant or the DEP for the issues. But both said they were disappointed that no one seemed to be overseeing the wells.

"We just want to know," Soltis said.

"Nobody's doing any testing for anything besides our own testing," Clarke said. "Why isn't there anybody who does standards (for wells)? Is it on us now?"

Pretty much everyone in the area has a well, Clarke said; he said there's no municipal water anywhere near that area. And that applies to plenty of portions near the creek, which snakes 60 miles from the scene of the fire through western and northern York County before ultimately emptying into the Susquehanna River at York Haven.

"We've been getting calls from all over the place," Repetz said.

People call in less with complaints and more with concerns and questions, he said. The DEP tells them more or less the same thing — a well that's dug deep enough and sealed correctly should see "little to no" effect from nearby river water contamination. And, he added, private wells don't fall under the department's purview.

Wells: The only oversight comes from a much more local level. The actual specifications for wells vary wildly from municipality to municipality, according to Melinda Cochran, one of the owners of A.C. Reider & Son, a drilling company.

Some places have pretty much no regulation, while others have specifications as to the casing, water tests, how deep the drillers have to dig and other aspects of the process, she said. There are no statewide regulations, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website.

"Drillers are NOT required to demonstrate knowledge of proper drilling or well construction practices in order to become licensed," the site reads. "Being a licensed driller does not ensure that a water well will be properly constructed."

Both Clarke and Soltis said their wells go down about 400 feet, and the first bit of that — neither was quite sure how far — is lined with a casing.

Cochran said casing normally is required to go below the bedrock. How far down bedrock is varies from place to place, she said.

Clarke and his wife, a young couple, moved to this place — Warrington Township — about a year and a half ago with already one baby in tow, and they have been happy they did so.

"It's our Eden," said Clarke. "And now it's weird to think we could be affected by something that happened 40 miles away."

He said he called the township, but the officials there said they didn't have the ability to test people's wells or do anything about any contamination. So Clarke said it's up to people to more or less fend for themselves, and help inform each other, as the Soltises did for him.

"If anyone reads this article and says, 'Hey, maybe we should test our water,' and then stops maybe their family or themselves from getting sick, it's worth it," he said.