Paden City struggles contaminated with water supply

Tonya Shuler, a Paden City resident for 25 years, looks at the water jugs she bought to avoid drinking the city’s water. The town’s water supply was found to have excess levels of the chemical perchloroethylene, or PCE, and residents like Shuler were informed about it earlier in March through a letter in the mail. (Photo by Alex Myer)

PADEN CITY — Sometimes the tap water in Jon Stillwagner’s home in Paden City flowed brown.

Today, Stillwagner, 69, a lifelong resident of the town, is concerned about water in Paden City for a different, less-visible reason. Tetrachloroethylene, also known as PCE, a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning, has been detected in the town’s drinking water supply.

“What we want is for our water to be cleaned,” Stillwagner said. “We’re bathing with it. We’re cooking with it. We’ve been drinking it.”

Paden City officials on March 4 announced a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion of PCE in the water. The maximum allowable contaminant level for the chemical set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 5.0 ppb.

Residents said they learned about the contamination through a letter from the city. Several expressed concern and confusion over whether the chemical might have an impact on their health.

Mayor Clyde Hochstrasser, meanwhile, said the city is searching for solutions and that the contamination is not at a dangerous level.

“The city is working to secure financing for the equipment we need to control the contamination,” Hochstrasser said. “We are also working on a temporary fix at this time. We will let residents know when we know more.”

The city, with a population of about 2,400, found contamination at one of its four wells about six months ago, which it then shut down. Two other wells recently began showing PCE contamination, Hochstrasser said.

Subsequently, Paden City received a notice of violation from the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health. The bureau, the EPA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are working with the city to mitigate the problem.

Paden City’s water system has received 43 violation notices since 2014, with 24 being major violations and three involving health risks, according to the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. The agency further found significant deficiencies in management operation of the town’s water in 2010 and 2015.

Neither the city nor any of the agencies involved have advised residents not to drink the water because of PCE, but some residents are avoiding its consumption. Tonya Shuler said she hasn’t drank city water in about a year.

“I’m a health nut, so we don’t drink pop,” she said of her family, her husband and three sons now in their 20s. “I had always made my kids drink the water here.”

The chemical was first detected in Paden City water in 2010, though it wasn’t found in excess levels until late 2018, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

PCE is commonly associated with dry cleaning facilities and the source of the contamination in Paden City is likely the now-closed Band Box Cleaners, according to the EPA. Hochstrasser said that company closed up shop about 16 to 18 years ago.

The chemical also presents potential health risks, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Studies have shown the chemical can affect the liver, kidneys and brain chemistry and several agencies consider it a carcinogen.

Shuler said those risks are scary to read about given her family’s health problems. While she suffers from complex regional pain syndrome, one of her sons has epilepsy, one has tremors in his hands and another recently developed a vision problem.

“Everybody in our house has had some sort of illness,” Shuler said. “You don’t really put all that together until you go reading about what this chemical does, and then it really makes you question it.”

Shuler, who said her water has also appeared brown like Stillwagner’s, said she wants to know whether the city’s water had any impact on her family.

“We just want answers,” she said. “I just want our community to be safe.”

Another resident, Ramona Mowder, also said she won’t drink city water.

“I went down yesterday to pay my water bill twice,” Mowder said. “I gave it to the city, then I gave it to Walmart because I had to buy drinking water. I won’t even give it to my pets.”

The city and others have maintained, however, that the contamination in the water is not at dangerous levels. Lew Baker, a representative from the West Virginia Rural Water Association, previously said the 5.5 ppb level is not a huge increase or risk for residents.

Other West Virginia towns along the Ohio River have experienced PCE contamination in recent decades, including Vienna in Wood County and Ravenswood in Jackson County. Vienna initially saw PCE levels of 70 ppb in the 1990s, and cleanup at both sites is “still ongoing,” according to the EPA.

Paden City, the agencies and residents are taking steps to find solutions. After she found out about the contamination, resident Rachael Cain began reaching out to water relief programs to secure bottled water for the town.

Cain gathered about 500 cases of bottled water that she distributed to residents at Paden City High School on Friday afternoon. The cases were donated from local stores like Walmart and Sam’s Club and other organizations.

“I have two little girls, a 6-year-old and a 5-year-old,” Cain said. “I have to wash my kids clothes in this water, and they have to walk around and wear it all day. I’m bathing my kids in this water.”

The EPA is taking the lead on investigation and remediation. The agency is taking water samples in Paden City to study the flow of water from the dry cleaners’ site to contaminated wells, spokesman Roy Seneca said.

Solutions from the EPA and DEP to remove the contamination could include installing extraction wells or removing contaminated soil, Seneca said. The city is looking for funding to upgrade the aeration equipment its uses to reduce the presence of chemicals.