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'What the hell is going on?': Residents seek answers as Peaks Mill water advisory exceeds 40 days

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County Judge-Executive Huston Wells, left, points to Divison of Water Director Peter Goodmann, middle, and advises PMWD Chairman Church Quarles to use Goodmann as a resource during a PMWD meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 10. (Photo by McKenna Horsley)

More than 30 Peaks Mill Water District customers crowded into the district’s office Tuesday night to complain about a boil water advisory that is well into its second month. 

About 175 PMWD customers have been under the advisory for more than 40 days. Residents on Tuesday sought answers in a two-hour public comment period at the district’s regular board of commissioners meeting.

The water district has received a notice of violation from the state Division of Water and must submit a plan to correct issues by the end of the month. 

Who is affected?

Here are the roads currently covered by the boil water advisory, which was last updated by PMWD last Thursday: 

  • Peaks Mill Road from 6700 Peaks Mill Road to Stillhouse Hollow 

  • All of Stillhouse Hollow Road

  • Indian Gap Road

  • 3500 and above on Union Ridge 

  • Camp Pleasant 

  • Mt. Vernon Road 

  • Mt Vernon Ridge 

  • Gregory Woods 

  • Kays Branch 

  • King Lane 

  • Teresita 

  • Harmony 

  • Payton Ridge 

  • Cedar Road

  • Oakland/Sharp Road

Among the 175 households, an estimated 500 people are currently under the advisory. The problem is low-level chlorine in water lines, officials have said.

Customers speak out

Resident Angela Cox, when asked after the meeting if she felt like issues were resolved, said, “No, absolutely not, absolutely not. And I don’t think it will be resolved relatively fast.” 

Cox, who owns a wildlife sanctuary and lives on Union Ridge, said that she feels like the problems have continued to get out of hand over time and escalated. In addition to having clean water again, she believes the system needs to be upgraded, which could be expensive now but pay off for residents in the long run.  

Ryan Casteel, who lives on Harmony Road, said that while he doesn’t feel like there is a solid solution on the table, after speaking with 4th District Magistrate Scotty Tracy, he feels like officials are working on it. He does think that residents should be refunded for water bills during the boil water advisory. 

“I feel that the ball has got to rolling now,” Casteel said. 

Tommy Thompson, a homeowner in the water district, said after the meeting that he feels like there is some pressure on water district officials to find a solution, but he’s not sure if they are “qualified” to make the plan. To him, a deadline to have a submitted plan by the end of the month means that “you have no plan now, and that’s the issue.”

Asking for help

Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells, who appoints the commissioners on the water board before they are confirmed by the fiscal court, said Tuesday that the court would be willing to provide some money for a short-term or long-term solution if needed, but PMWD has to come to the court to ask for help.

Tracy agreed. Wells said that it’s “pretty sad” that the county with the capital of the state in it can’t provide water to its customers. 

On Wednesday, he said that PMWD isn’t on the agenda for the court’s Friday meeting. He said he made the offer of financial assistance because it seemed to be a recurring issue in the meeting and before hearing that the water district had $1 million in the bank. He said grants could be another avenue for the water district to get help. 

Peter Goodman, the director of the Division of Water, said during the meeting that Louisville Water, which has a history with helping small water systems and is among the top water companies in the country, has “raised their hand” to help the water district and he will put Quarles in touch with them. Another option is connecting the district to Kentucky American Water, which has a system in Owenton.

“So if you don’t ask for help, it’s your fault, your fault. So, ask for help,” Wells told PMWD Chairman Church Quarles and Dale Gatewood, who handles maintenance and meters for the water district, on Tuesday.

State of emergency?

Wells said Wednesday that he is not declaring a state of emergency for Peaks Mill Water District at this time because he believes the solution to the current problem would take the same amount of time to implement. He said that if he thought such a declaration would expedite the process, he would. 

Chlorine issues

Issues started following the Jim Beam warehouse fire on July 2. Some Peaks Mill residents reported water with a foul taste and smell around July 18, said Quarles. Water samples showed that there weren’t any toxins present in the water.

After that, PMWD found low chlorine levels in the system, which could be related to the summer heat, officials said.

Chlorine and heat don’t mix well, Quarles said. A trailer on the system injects a chemical called Oracle and a chloramine booster into the water.

The board approved a motion Tuesday to buy two more trailers, which could take a couple of weeks to process. 

The water lines also have an issue with the nitrification process, or the process of ammonia in the water oxidizing to nitrate. There is also a small leak in a valve, but that is helping in this case to move water through the system, officials said. Gatewood said the district lost about a million gallons of water in the past month. 

Plenty of pipes

The issues have been prolonged because the Peaks Mill Water District has around 1,200 customers on 57 miles of pipes, officials said. Because not a lot of customers are on the system, water stays in the system longer, which can lead to build-up of biofilms, a harmless bacteria. 

Chloramines, which are combinations of free chlorine and free ammonia, are used for disinfection, suppress disinfection by-products in older water. Water sitting in a system tends to build up biofilms because that free ammonia, which acts as a fertilizer, metabolizes the biofilm, which is harmless bacteria, except that instead of being a disinfectant, the biofilm grows. 

Bottled water available

In response to the boil water advisory, donated bottles of water have been available for residents affected by the boil water advisory at two locations: Franklin County Fire Station, 9091 Owenton Road, and Monterey Fire Station, 40 Sawdridge Road, across from Ellis Market. The Monterey station is a volunteer fire department, so residents are advised to pick up water before 5 p.m., or 6 p.m. at the latest.

The Division of Water placed PMWD on a notice of violation for low chlorine levels about 10 days ago. The water district was given 30 days to come up with a plan to resolve the low chlorine levels that must be approved by the state agency.

Representatives from Peaks Mill Water District, the state, Franklin County and the Frankfort Plant Board meet prior to the Tuesday meeting to discuss solutions. 

Looking for answers

Residents went back and forth with representatives of the water district and the Division of Water on Tuesday, trying to get answers about what the issues are and what officials are doing about them. 

Goodmann said that the reason that the DoW and PMWD have spent so much time to gather data on the problem is to identify where the issues are in the system. He said he thinks that they are at a point where they have enough data to start working on a solution. To put it simply, the solution is to shorten the “residence time” of water in the system. 

“What you don’t want is a plan that is developed when you don’t understand the problem. I think it’s really important that they understand the problem, what’s in front of them, what different parts of the system,” Goodmann said. “Because if you come up with a bad plan, you haven’t fixed anything. You’ve spent some money and you didn’t fix anything.”

He said DoW has visited the water district almost daily for a month. Goodman said during the meeting that he was under the impression that the issue had been handled a few weeks ago, but he was stopped by residents in town asking about the water district. 

“I got waylaid at the gym and Lowe’s and the grocery store by people that I know that live out here and they are like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And I came in and I said the same thing to my staff, ‘What the hell is going on? Why don’t people know what is going on?’ I was mad because it's not acceptable. We got to fix the problem. It’s not an easy problem to fix, but we got to fix the problem,” Goodmann said.  

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Residents gather in the Peaks Mill Water District office on Tuesday, Sept. 10 before a board meeting. Some residents have been under a boil water advisory for over 40 days. (Photo by McKenna Horsley)

Customers asked whether they will be reimbursed for the past two months of bills, as they have not been using water out of the tap. Quarles said the board was not ready to talk about that during the Tuesday meeting.

Communication

In the wake of this boil water advisory, the water district board voted to buy a system from an automatic-calling company One Call Now for about $1,200 a year. The company is used by Franklin County Schools for alerts. With the system, customers can opt-in to text or call alerts for notifications from PMWD about issues like boil water advisories. 

To further increase communication to residents in the future, signs with information about a boil water advisory are being made so they can be placed on roads in the district. The downside is that the wind could knock the signs over. The water district began using similar signs a couple weeks ago at the suggestion of the DoW. 

Alerts from PMWD are posted on the district’s website, peaksmillwaterdistrict.com, and its Facebook page, though a few residents complained that if they asked a question on Facebook about an alert, it went unanswered. Information is sent out through the Frankfort-Franklin County Emergency Management app Ready Frankfort, which is available for smart phones. 

Notification

The water district has not notified the Franklin County Health Department, an action required by state law, said FCHD Environmental Health Director Kendra Palmer. She said Frankfort-Franklin County Emergency Management has sent alerts to the department.

One concerned citizen did call the health department, but Palmer said that she directed the resident to the Kentucky Division of Water, as local health departments only test private water supplies like wells and springs and the Division of Water regulates public water systems for public health protection. She said there is no confirmed waterborne illness in the county. 

Peaks Mill Water District logo

Peaks Mill Water District logo

“No employee from Franklin County Health Department has tested any water from this area, nor are we allowed to test this water,” Palmer said.  

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