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Clean water for Racking Cove: Contentious water fund decision will provide Jackson residents with safe water

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

It’s been almost a year since Bonita Fox and her family have taken a sip of water from their well.

Fox, 52, is only able to use her well to wash clothes and take five-minute showers. Other daily activities — like brushing teeth or making a pot of coffee — are out of the question. The Jackson County family’s well is contaminated with benzene, a cancer-causing agent.

A gas leak from an above-ground tank has been named the culprit for spreading the chemical into the aquifer, county officials say. The Fox home —located off U.S. 74 on Racking Cove Road — sits downhill from the former gas station site.

The only way for Fox and her family to have clean drinking water is if a two-mile water line is installed, according to officials at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Construction plans for the water line and a pump station are in the works for Bonita, her husband Eddie and her two grandsons. The project will cost $650,000, which prompted Jackson County officials to submit an application to the 2006 Bernard Allen Emergency Drinking Water Fund for some financial assistance.

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The emergency water fund was established two years ago by the state legislature to help communities that suffer from contaminated water. Lawmakers put $300,000 into the fund in 2006. The fund saw a budget increase in 2007 to $615,000. Officials at DENR determined that the water line for the Foxes would receive all the money in the 2006 fund since Jackson County was the only entity that had all the proper paperwork and samples in, said Diana Kees, DENR director of communications.

The Sylva project meets all the criteria set forth for funding a contaminated water project, she explained. “This project met all the qualifications and it seemed to be something we needed to do,” said Kees.

But after DENR awarded the Sylva project the whole $300,000, some state watershed protection organizations cried foul.


Environmentalists upset

Several groups — like Clean Water for North Carolina — have spoken out about the DENR decision in newspapers including The Raleigh News and Observer, bringing statewide attention to the Jackson County waterline project.

“We have no problem with the Fox family receiving a portion of that fund,” Gracia O’Neill, assistant director of Clean Water for NC, told The Smoky Mountain News. “But we feel it’s a serious misappropriation of the funds (for one project to use up all the money).”

There are more than 30 communities across the state suffering from contaminated water, O’Neill says, but somehow the Fox’s well was the only project to receive all the funding.

“How it went from that list to blowing it all on one project, I don’t know,” O’Neill said.

Gary Grant, executive director of Concerned Citizens of Tillery and coordinator of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, is also upset about DENR actions regarding the appropriation for the Sylva project.

“We certainly don’t think the money was used for what Mr. Allen set it up for,” Grant said. “To use all the funding for one project when you have a number of people that have contaminated wells is not what was intended.”

The Concerned Citizens of Tillery is a community-based organization that promotes the improvement the social, economic and educational welfare of the citizens of Tillery and Halifax County.

O’Neill suggested that the location of the proposed water line project might have been a driving force behind DENR’s decision.

“It just happens to go by an area in Sylva that is ripe for development,” said O’Neill.

But county officials say the water line is needed because it’s a matter of public health, not for economic development.

“I frankly don’t understand the criticism,” said Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “By gosh, this is a God-send. The other alternative is to move and abandon their home.”

Rep. Phillip Haire, (D-Sylva) shared similar opinions about the recent accusations. He said that projects like the Racking Cove Road water line are what lawmakers intended the emergency fund to be spent toward.

“It’s just helping these folks out up here,” he said. “If it was a flood or a hurricane we would help out, so what’s the difference?”

Haire said the thought of this project being funded merely to benefit economic growth is “ludicrous.”

“We are just helping out some hard-working Jackson County folks.”

Additionally, the water line will allow other families along Racking Cove Road to connect to have safe drinking water.

“This line will serve them as well,” Westmoreland said. “There are about a half dozen of families that could tap on.”

Morning Star Assisted Living, a nursing home that cares for 55 residents, is also planning to tap on to the water line once installed, Westmoreland added.


Digging for more water

Fox discovered that her water was no longer drinkable in spring 2007. The well, which also supplies water to homes belonging to Fox’s mother and daughter, was suffering from low pressure.

“We were getting a half gallon per minute for four houses,” she said.

Fox hired Greene Brothers Well Drilling to dig further down in hopes of getting more water.

“The company found more water, but it wasn’t clean,” Fox said.

The water had a foul odor emanating from it, so the drilling company added chlorine to kill any bacteria unfortunately, that did not help, Fox explained. She notified county and state officials about the problem, which prompted field workers from the DENR Regional Office in Asheville to come to Sylva to sample Fox’s water.

The water was evaluated by a DENR lab in Raleigh that determined it could only be used for limited showers or bathing, said Jan Anderson, regional supervisor at the DENR in Asheville.

After testing Fox’s well, others in the valley were tested for contamination.

“We’ve done quite a lot of sampling over there,” Anderson said.

Neighboring resident James McConnell’s well was tested and determined to be clean. McConnell’s well is only about 30 yards south of Fox’s.

“Ours is all right,” McConnell, 72, said.

Since hearing about the contamination, McConnell has been extremely cautious about his drinking water. Every six months he has his well tested to make sure the contamination hasn’t spread

“It’s dangerous stuff — especially for young kids,” said McConnell.

But not all Racking Cove Road residents were fortunate enough — like McConnell — to have a non-contaminated well. According to Anderson, the benzene has spread to another homes down the valley. She said one homeowner discovered their water supply was contaminated when they were trying to dig a new well last summer. Anderson would not give the specifics about which homes were affected but did confirm that the contamination is spreading down the mountainside.

“Once benzene has spread into the area’s bedrock, there is no telling where it could spread,” Anderson said. “With the fractures in the mountain, we don’t know which way it will go.”

Officials at Jackson County Department of Public Health could not give a definite answer about whether the benzene has spread to other homes. However, officials are aware of the risks associated with the chemical spreading.

“The potential to migrate into other wells, it’s already there,” said Charles Stephens, Jackson County environmental health supervisor. “It might migrate further than that. (The water line) is a precaution for all residents on that street.”


Fight for your right for clean water

Over the past several months, Fox has been working diligently to get clean drinking water for her family. She has spent hours calling and writing county and state officials. That’s in addition to the number of hours she spends each day retrieving clean water for her family and pets.

“People don’t realize all you do with water,” Fox said.

Fox travels to nearby family members’ homes to fill up plastic gallon jugs with water. She also receives a 265-gallon emergency water tank filled with non-potable water from the county, which she uses to bathe her grandchildren, 3-year-old Brian and 1-year-old Ryan.

About every two weeks Todd Dillard, Jackson County emergency management coordinator, delivers the water tank to Fox. The county has been providing Fox with this service since it found out the water was contaminated, he said. Bringing water to the Fox family is not required by any law.

“This is something that Jackson County is doing for her through emergency management,” said Dillard. The Fox’s situation is the first well contamination for Jackson County.

Workers at the county’s department of public health also test the water that the county delivers to Fox.

“As a safety precaution the water is tested because it’s being transported,” said Stephens.


A two-mile water line

The price tag of the Racking Cove Road water line project has been causing clean water advocates like O’Neill to cringe.

Just to install the two-mile water line and a pumping station along Racking Cove Road is expected to cost $650,000, said Joe Cline, executive director of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority.

Money from the emergency water fund and a $300,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center are paying for the project, along with the tap-in fees for the folks with contaminated wells, Cline said.

TWSA is managing the water line project. Right now it is waiting for final DENR approval of the permit. Cline says the project will go out to bid this week. Once DENR gives its approval, it will take at least four months to complete construction.

Even though it probably won’t be until sometime this summer that Fox will be able to drink water from her kitchen sink, she is extremely happy the project is moving forward.

“I fought for this for my whole family,” Fox said.

She stressed that once the water line is installed, it will benefit the Racking Cove Road community.

“It for the whole valley,” Fox said. “This is a project that is well worth doing. They need clean water, give it to them.”


A misappropriation of funds

Members of the Clean Water for NC are now focusing on rules governing the appropriation of the emergency fund money, a move that is receiving support from members of the Concerned Citizens of Tillery. The fund’s budget has increased to $615,000, and O’Neill is advocating for a list of guidelines that would allocate the money toward certain uses.

“There are a number of good, cost-effective uses,” she said.

O”Neill is proposing that 30 percent of the funding go toward notifying well users about contamination and 20 percent for testing of wells. But Fox disagrees with O’Neill’s opinion about the allocation of the emergency fund.

“You can spend all that money on testing, but when a problem arises like ours, will the money be there to fix it?”

A water quality advocate’s legacy

Bernard Allen, for whom the emergency drinking water fund is named, was a retired educator that served as a member of the North Carolina General Assembly representing the Raleigh area. Allen died in the fall of 2006 after suffering from a mild stroke. He was 69 years old.

Allen became an advocate for the testing of well water after finding out that his own well was contaminated in 2003. He sponsored House Bill 1701 which called for the testing and notification of wells in addition to establishing an emergency drinking water fund. For more information about the fund go to

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