CR3 News Magazine 2018 February: Black History Special Edition - Page 14

Ella Christmas had a rash, on and off, for 10 years. Her

grandson would get it too after bathing. Sick of going

to the doctor, the 61-year-old put bleach on her rash

to dry it out. This left her with a scar that runs from

her shoulder to her breast.

Sequestered behind orange groves in northeastern Lee

County in rural Alva, this isolated settlement of a few

hundred people has the worst well conditions Tim Byrne,

CEO of Aqua Consultants, has witnessed in his decades

in the water treatment business. “I’ve never seen an

entire community so underserviced in my life.”

Across Lee County, tens of thousands of people rely on wells. Their wells tend to be newer and deeper. They have water treatment like filters or reverse osmosis. But in Charleston Park, many wells are old, as shallow as 20 feet deep, and pull up polluted water. People use raw well water. Experts have said reverse osmosis could make it drinkable but that level of treatment is a steep price for a community with a median annual household income of about $16,000.

Essentially, the issue is this: People lack access to safe tap water, a problem more associated with slums in India than a county billed as paradise. Florida residents got a taste of what it is like to live without clean running water during Hurricane Irma. Yet, there's no help in sight to resolve it for Charleston Park.

“They just don’t give a darn about us out here.”

It’s easy to get thirsty in Charleston Park. There’s no place to buy clean water.

Just a mile north, there is lushness where land greets the Caloosahatchee River. Spanish moss dangles on mighty oaks. Adirondack chairs squat on wooden docks. Scenes of serenity border the river that runs to Fort Myers, where luxury high-rises with aspirational names like Allure, Riviera, and Oasis tag the waterfront. The river curves along Cape Coral and empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Sanibel Island, the land of mansions and seashells. The river strings together contrasts.

When the water downstream is bad it’s a crisis.

When the water in Charleston Park is bad, it’s life.

And life is not easy there; never has been since it began in 1926. Early settlers, black farmworkers, sought refuge from plantations, so lore goes. There’s been great progress since. Roads paved. A playground built. Less drug use, less crime. There’s pride in this. If you live there long enough, you get to know your neighbor’s quirks. There’s comfort in knowing each other’s family trees. Parents feel safe leaving their kids to run and roam this rectangle of eight streets but are distrusting of outsiders.

Many people in Charleston Park don’t own cars so a mother, Raven Adams, is stuck paying an acquaintance 20 bucks for a ride miles up the road to buy 48 bottles of water at a convenience store. In that single trip she paid about the same as the typical $28.94 monthly water bill in Lee County.

What choice did she have when her baby broke out in dry spots all over his legs after bathing him with the water in her trailer. She boiled the water before cooling it to bathe him but pure water would be best, the doctor's office said.

The water has been bad for so long it can feel like people on the outside don’t care.

“I think they should get out here and realize that even though we’re black people out here, we should be treated equally, like human beings,” said Christmas, who has lived there most of her life. “They just don’t give a darn about us out here.”

Why is the water so bad?

Beneath the sandy soil of tiny churches, concrete abodes, and manufactured homes runs groundwater from which the wells pull.

You don’t have to dig all that far before a muddy puddle fills the hole. This is what some people drink from. With scant buffer between land and water, it’s easily contaminated. This shallow aquifer contains iron, which can make the water look and taste rusty, according to Lee County Natural Resources. Starting somewhere between 55 to 100 feet, is the sandstone aquifer. That has sulfur, which has the egg smell typical of a country well. Drilling deeper to the sandstone can improve well water quality, but there's no mandate for a homeowner to do so and it's more costly.

Neither aquifer consistently offers water that tastes or looks good without treatment. A green sand filter would help resolve the iron, county officials said. The sulfur could be removed with an aerator.

There’s assistance through the county to replace or repair wells for qualified low-income applicants, but not for water treatment.

What’s in the well water? No one really knows. It depends on the well and there’s been very limited testing for only a few contaminants.

Map: Charleston Park well test results

Spreadsheet: Lee County Natural Resources well inventory (10-1-1980 through 7-20-2017)

After the community ranked safe drinking water as their top environmental health concern in a survey three years ago, the Lee County health department tested the water in several homes for bacteria and nitrates. Most samples had total coliform bacteria, typically harmless, but it could indicate the presence of other disease-causing bacteria for which the water was not tested. One tested positive for E. coli. Two of six wells had nitrates, commonly linked to septic tanks or fertilizer, rising more than halfway to the EPA's maximum contaminant level but still considered safe.

Residents shared concerns with the health department that chemicals applied to the neighborhood could be polluting the water.

“In agricultural communities, it’s not uncommon to have some elevated nitrate levels. Nitrogen and nitrate are often applied in fertilizer,” said Jeffrey Cunningham, a professor in the University of South Florida’s civil and environmental engineering department. “What typically happens is it’s applied at land surface, but if it rains or if you irrigate and some of it is washed vertically down, it eventually lands in groundwater.”

Alton Green of Jackson Citrus manages the orange groves surrounding Charleston Park. Green wouldn’t provide specifics about pesticide and fertilizer usage but noted they abide by best management practices. Oranges are typically sprayed less than other crops.

"We are good stewards of the environment and our water resources," he said in an email. "Potential nitrate sources are everywhere including septic tank systems."

Why is the well water so bad? Along with groundwater contamination, the lack of water treatment and shallow, old or poorly-maintained wells, it's also tied to geology.

Some of the most extensive results come from a test well drilled in 2008 to about 150 feet for a private water utility serving migrant housing once owned by Lee County Housing Authority. Water exceeded standards in radium, total dissolved solids, chlorides, sodium, and nitrites, and required reverse osmosis to make it drinkable. A lab manager said the radium was naturally-occurring.

Radium is a radionuclide, a carcinogen. Radionuclides exceeding maximum contaminant levels for community systems were discovered in some wells in that area, according to a 1987 letter from a Lee health department director that spelled out several contaminants in Charleston Park wells. A radiation survey done back then found there was not a “significant health hazard” to residents. But due to concerns, the water supply for the migrant housing was built about a mile or so from the community. “They specifically moved it off-site where they wouldn’t be impacted by radon," said Ken Thompson, the Lee County Housing Authority's lawyer.

Greg Rawl, a local hydrologist, pointed out that the total dissolved solids are higher than what he sees from the sandstone aquifer in other areas in the county. He concurred reverse osmosis would be needed. Home systems run into the thousands and Charleston Park homeowners with the money to buy such systems have few complaints about the water.