Huntington County town files emergency lawsuit after chemical levels “very high” in water supply

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ANDREWS, Ind. (WANE) — The town of Andrews has filed another lawsuit against Raytheon, formally known as United Technologies, after chemical levels found to be “very high” in one of the town’s water wells.

On Friday, Huntington County advised Andrews residents to avoid using their water for any purpose after water test results showed that one of the wells had 26 parts per billion of vinyl chloride, more than ten times the maximum contaminate level of 2 parts for billion allowed in drinking water. On Saturday, the town’s lawyers held a town meeting to explain the situation to residents.

The well that showed high levels of vinyl chloride is one of three that service Andrews. The town had stopped use of the well in 2012 after residents complained of the odor and taste of the water but made the decision to put the well back in operation in May of 2020 after water levels dropped in the other two wells. Lawyers from Taft Stettinius & Hollister LP in Indianapolis, who are representing Andrews in their lawsuits against United Technologies, said the two wells did not have enough water to service the whole town.

According to the emergency motion filed on Friday in the Huntington Superior Courts, United Technologies contaminated the groundwater by dumping hazardous chemicals at the old Dana plant in Andrews, which United Technologies now owns. The town of Andrews filed a lawsuit in 2016 to get the courts to order United Technologies to clean up contamination at the site of the former Dana plant in town.

Thomas Barnard a lawyer with the firm representing Andrews said Raytheon was aware of the contamination in that well in 1994. They then installed an air stripper, which is supposed to filter out volatile organic chemicals, including vinyl chloride. Barnard said vinyl chloride is known to cause cancer, and so there is only so much allowed in drinking water. While the air stripper filters out the chemical, Barnard said it experienced major issues between June 5 and June 10, 2020.

“If that stripper is not working adequately, that that vinyl chloride, after it goes through the process and the other treatment, that it could still be in the drinking water,” said Barnard.

The high levels were taken from the water from the well before it passed through the air stripper. According to Barnard, the town did not test the water that passed through the filter because it does not have access to where that water is held. He also said that another issue is that United Technologies did not inform the town of the air stripper issues as it was happening, so the town cannot say for certain whether or not contaminated water made its way into Andrews homes.

For the time being, the town is asking residents not to use the water if they can avoid it. The two major ways to be exposed to vinyl chloride is by consuming it or through vapers that come while heating the water. At the level the water is currently at, the water looks and smells normal.

“I happen to live about a block and a half from the source of contamination and not a lot of information has been given,” said Andrews resident Heather Draper. “I’ve lived there for 8 years and never have gotten a notice, or saying, you know, you should be careful or these are issues or anything.”

Draper said she found out about the water advisory around 5:00 pm Friday evening and has spent the time since then trying to work around the restraints.

“You don’t realize how much you use water for everything,” said Draper. “I want to go rinse my dishes, or wash my hands after I use the restroom, those are things I had to think about twice. I can’t give my dogs water. It’s very disruptive to our lives. Where am I going to go shower?”

The lawyer said that while the amount of vinyl chloride in the well is a major concern, their experts did not believe the levels are high enough yet to cause serious health issues, but residents still have concerns.

“My wife’s been diagnosed with cancer twice in the last six, seven years,” said Michael Lake, who has lived in Andrews for 23 years. “You wonder, these chemicals, are they causing this problem? If it is, how many other people has it caused problems for? I know plenty of people who’ve been sick around here and it seems like a theme. It seems like the cancer thing, I understand it does happen and I understand there’s a lot of reasons for it, but it seems like it’s happening around here a lot more than it used to.”

Lake said he was also frustrated by what he felt was a lack of communication between the town and the community about the situation. Andrews does not have the ability to send mass messages to the community and so they asked the Huntington County EMA to do it, however, some said they never received the alert and others said they did not have phones or Internet access.

“I found out via Facebook,” said Lake. “Everybody else supposedly got a text message. Now, I have four cell phones in my house and they’re set up for text messages, for emergencies, I get flood messages down here because we got a little creek in the backyard and I got no messages on no phones.”

Other people at Saturday’s meeting reporting hearing about the situation from news outlets or by word of mouth. Lake said typically the town is very communicative, even sending people to known on doors when water is high in the creek.

Barnard said the town cannot afford to fix the issue themselves because it is a poorer area and the town does not have the funds to do it. The emergency motion asks the courts to order United Tech to clean up the current wells or build new ones in an uncontaminated area. They believe the responsibility should fall on United Technologies because they say the issues stem directly from the business’ actions.

As far as when the issue could be fixed, Barnard said that because it’s in the hands of the court. Plus, he said it will take time and money to fix the issue. There have not yet been discussions about what to do if the judge rejects the motion, but they plan on supplying water to residents until the issue is fixed. Residents are asked to avoid using the water until further notice. With help from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, bottled water will be provided to residents.

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