Concerns over Drinking Water Worry Residents of Small Community

Jul 3, 2014

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

In Charleston Park, one of the five designated “blighted” communities in Lee County, there’s a belief that there’s something in the water. Now, the government is stepping in to try to fix it - whether it’s true or not.

When Wilhelmina Pontoon wants a glass of water to drink, she takes some from the multiple five gallon jugs she buys each week.

Pontoon doesn’t trust the tap water in Charleston Park, a small community near Alva where about 218 people live, according to the census.
“You can see little trash in the water, if you put it in a cup,” she said. “We usually boil it. When we can’t go out and get some water than we have to boil it.”

Pontoon has lived in Charleston Park on and off for most of her life. Her parents were buying water for the family before she picked up the tradition.

Suspicion around the look, taste and color of Charleston Park’s drinking water is not just the Pontoon family’s concern. It’s felt around the neighborhood. And, now the  government has stepped in.

But, there is still a struggle to separate what the neighborhood believes and what, if anything, is actually wrong with the water.

Geordie Smith is the coordinator for the Protocol for Assessing Community Excellence in Environmental Health – or PACE EH – program in Lee County.

The program enters low-income communities and asks residents what are their big issues.

PACE EH began working in Charleston Park last August. Smith passed out surveys this spring.

What he got back surprised him.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

“This is kind of remarkable because you don’t get this kind of consensus within a community,” he said. “But, of the survey results we have so far, 95 percent are selecting safe drinking water as their number one issue or one of their top issues.”

“Meeting basic needs” was also on top.

Smith suspects old, broken septic tanks are leaking into the shallow well most of the residents use.

Why Charleston Park has shallow wells goes back to its origins.

The community started as a trailer park.

But, homes began replacing mobile homes in the late 1950’s. Alice Harris Washington is the resident coordinator for Charleston Park. She said mobile homes were banned from Charleston Park by the early 1990's.

“When they took out the mobile homes, they left the wells,” she said.

In a community where the median age is 67 and household incomes hover around $29,000 a year, upgrading septic tanks or digging deeper wells may not be possible.

Harris Washington said Lee County once tried to upgrade homes with a water filtration system, but it also required residents to put a two or three year lien on their homes. Few people took the offer.

There’s also a small reverse osmosis plant providing water to a little migrant camp, nine homes and the community center.

If there is a problem with the water, it would mean this community has spent decades with unusable drinking water and now has the option with the help of the government to fix it.

And Geordie Smith from PACE EH told me in April, that there was a way to see if his chief suspect – leaking septic tanks – was really to blame.

“Normally, if somebody wants their water supply tested they can take samples,” he said, “They can go to our environmental engineering section and get sample containers [and then] take samples of the water, bring it in and have it tested.”

So, that’s what I did.

I collected eight samples from across the neighborhood and dropped them off at the environmental engineering office.

The department looked for coliform and E. coli – both bacterium pointing toward fecal contamination from leaking septic tanks.

Willie Christmas believes water quality is not an issue in Charleston Park.
Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

One of those samples belongs to Willie Christmas, who runs a home for the elderly

Christmas is a Charleston Park lifer. He said water quality is not a big issue here.

“I would think the housing needs to be improved around here… The leadership should be a little bit more concerned about the community than hearsay,” he said.

The results are negative when they come back - meaning no sign of fecal contamination in any of them.

During a visit to Charleston Park in May, I ask Geordie Smith, who oversees the PACE EH program, about the results.

He said they don’t give a full picture. Continual monitoring would be the only way to know if fecal contamination is a real issue, but he said he isn’t planning to test.

“At least not on a regular basis,” he said. “I would like to go back and sample in the rainy season… But, that’s not the only issue with water quality. There’s taste, there’s color, there’s the aesthetic of the water.”

Besides, he said, it could be something else affecting the water, like naturally occurring radon.

Either way, Smith said he’ll continue to push to figure out a way to change the water systems in Charleston Park – it’s how PACE EH works.

“Regardless of what the results of this test say,” he said. “The residents are worried about their water supply and if that’s the issue they pick, that’s the issue we work on. It’s their perception.”

He suggested expanding the capacity of the reverse osmosis plant. But, that would mean residents would have to pay a water bill.

In a community where money is so tight, addressing the perception may cost residents real money.