Something in the Water: Too poor for clean running water?
Local water treatment provider says Charleston Park, Florida has the worst well water conditions he has seen in his career. Andrew West and Janine Zeitlin/news-press.com
There’s a place where dirty water flows into people’s homes. Some drink it. Others wouldn’t dare. To those, the water is unfit to even cook with or brush their teeth. But they must use it to wash their clothes, their dishes, their kids.
The people of Charleston Park are getting sick: stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, rashes. Cancer is a worry. They blame the water. It’s been that way for decades and little is being done about it.
Wilhelmina Pontoon’s 9-year-old son called it “doo-doo” water.
Frank Neal, 78, stopped drinking his water long ago. In the '90s, he took it to be tested. Through a microscope, he spotted peculiar strands “just strokin’ in there, little short things,” he recalled. “It was alive.” His water wasn’t fit to drink, they told him. “I can’t remember the names of the stuff but none of those names were good.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Interactive: What could be in your well water?
Private wells, here and most everywhere, are the wild west of water quality. Millions of homes across the nation and more than 50,000 in Lee County rely on private wells that are not covered by regulations to protect drinking water systems. Charleston Park is an acute example of what can happen in an older, poorer and isolated community when no one is required to make sure well water is clean.
“There’s not a lot out there for citizens in the state regardless of their socioeconomic background to find out information about well water quality and what potentially could contaminate their wells,” said Mary Lusk, a water resources specialist on a team that considers big-picture water issues at the University of Florida. “There’s just a real gap there, a gaping hole and need there, especially in these rural communities.”
And in the United States, clean drinking water is not a legal right.
“Our rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Don Duke, an FGCU professor of environmental studies. “We don’t have any sort of intervention that says (water) needs to be provided free or cheaply to people who can’t afford it.”
In 2010, the United Nations formally recognized safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water as a human right. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights violation in the world,” said water advocate Maude Barlow around that time.
The World Health Organization defines “physically accessible” as about a half mile, says the UN. By that standard, Charleston Park fails. The closest place to buy clean drinking water is nearly two miles away at a dollar store that opened within the past year.
“It seems like the poorest people are subject to the worst environmental conditions,” said John Cassani of Calusa WaterKeeper, a group protecting the watershed in which Charleston Park sits.
Historically, the people with the best access to the best infrastructure do not fall within the demographic typical of Charleston Park: poor and black.
In the '90s, there was talk of Lee County hooking Charleston Park up to a water plant, but staffers couldn’t find the money to subsidize it. A few years ago, health department officials considered a similar possibility, but they gave up too.
No one wants a problem they’re not legally obligated to solve.
Nothing will change, said Neal, a former president of the community association, “as long as people stay quiet, like they have this long.”
For a long time, there was a powerful voice: Alice Washington’s. She rallied residents and nudged agencies to get things done. Two years ago, she died, at the age of 62, from a heart attack while at her desk at the Charleston Park Community Center. She was chipping away at a solution to the water problem.
As for Neal, he and his wife have adapted. They buy bottled water for cooking and drinking. But he has not entirely given up.
“I’d like to see something happen so that people can drink it and they’re not afraid.”
A nagging fear has taken up residence.
Eight-year-old Tovanni Anderson played scientist in his grandma’s kitchen.
“Back up,” Tovanni shooed off his younger brother and toddler sister as he found a spot for his microscope near the toaster oven and sink.
His intent this evening was as serious as is his manner.
“My granddad drank the water and he died in this house. If I became a scientist, maybe I could find a cure.”
His granddad, Burdie Baker, died at 76 in 2015, shortly after his sister, Alice Washington. He was diagnosed with cancer that migrated from his colon to his lungs to his brain, said his wife Pansy Baker, Tovanni’s grandmother. Baker was dubbed the honorary mayor of Charleston Park. He called himself “The Black Redneck.”
“I was after him to buy water and to drink bottled water ... but he was adamant about drinking this water, the water that's coming through that well, and I’m thinking that caused cancer for him,” Pansy said.
I've been drinking it for 40 years, he told her.
"Maybe that’s why you’ve got the health issues," she said.
Tovanni was the oldest of four grandkids living in the three-bedroom mobile home steps from the orange groves. His mother, Pansy’s daughter, and Pansy’s son lived there too.
Tovanni placed a drop of tap water on the slide.
“Do you see any bugs or anything in it?” asked Pansy.
Tovanni focused the scope. He saw wispy strands of something slithering.
“There’s almost like a colony in there.”
His grandmother was not surprised. “Can you imagine that going up in your belly?”
Despite her husband’s allegiance to the water, she’s been drinking bottled water since moving there. “When he boiled it, it put this crusty stuff around the pot and it turned white. There was something in that water that wasn’t good to drink. When it sets up, you can see stuff forming at the bottom so I never felt led to drink it. At all.”
Baker would welcome a water bill if it meant being taken off that water. She won’t let her kids or grandkids drink from the faucet. Earlier this year, in an effort to define the water problem, the local health department tested Baker’s sink and well for bacteria. Total coliform bacteria was found, even after well disinfection.
A retired teacher’s aide, Baker encouraged her grandson’s investigation. She suggested he check out the container collecting the day’s worth of drips from the leaky kitchen sink. The water smelled like “poop,” she described, accurately.
The idea of her grandson finding a fix made her smile. She imagined a headline, “8-year-old has the key to the water solution in Charleston Park.”
No one, it seems, is looking for that key, perhaps because it’s a problem in need of a potentially contentious, potentially expensive, and most certainly creative solution. In decades past, residents were wary of an assessment to hook into an existing utility that would offer a high level of water treatment, a former county official said.
Before her death, Washington shared concerns about a link between stomach cancers and the bad water with Ruby Daniels, president of Alva Inc., a community group that works to preserve the rural character of unincorporated Alva.
“It would be tragic if we have a community, a poor community on top of that, that has really bad water and nothing was done about it,” Daniels said.
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, who has represented Charleston Park since 2006, said Washington did not communicate water quality worries to him. She was among the Charleston Park leaders most comfortable talking to him, he said. The other two he knew have died as well.
"The sad truth is with any government, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and I haven’t heard any wheels squeaking. I’d be happy to go out there with my grease gun. I’m not going to turn my back on people that think they’re getting sick from the water they’re drinking coming out of their well, but no one has told me that is a problem, not in 10 years, not once."
Meeting minutes, though, show Mann contributed to a discussion about Charleston Park's water problem during a county commission workshop in 1993, his first year on the commission. John Albion, commissioner for Charleston Park then, raised the issue. During his 14 years in office, he looked for solutions. "From my perspective, it was never a lack of will, it was always the lack of funds."
It's a long flat drive out to Charleston Park, past dive bars, gated communities, a drive-through Dairy Queen, cows and goats.
The Charleston Park Day parade this spring was late to start, but it didn’t matter because no one was there to watch it. Compared to years past this annual celebration meant to stoke pride and hope was unrecognizable. A handful of people were in a pavilion near the playground and basketball court. Geordie Smith of the Lee County health department was one.
Smith stood at the same spot two years earlier amid hundreds of residents and do-gooders. Alice Washington orchestrated the event from her motorized scooter. Residents filled bleachers. Farmers and the food bank passed out produce. Social service agencies doled out promises of a better quality of life. Back then, Smith hoped to resolve the water problem. Now he sat alone, frustrated on a Saturday morning.
At one point, he wanted to test all the wells there for nitrates and pesticides. The limited testing they completed didn’t provide enough “smoking-gun” evidence to bolster a push for grant dollars, he felt. Still, the best solution would have been connecting all of Charleston Park to the small utility serving migrant housing, he said. The farming company that owns the plant has said they’ve offered the utility to the health department for free, though it would require a costly expansion.
“The neighborhood perceives there’s a water problem and just their perception of the water as unhealthy should be enough to want to find a solution and I was working on the premise they were willing to pay a water bill," Smith said. "I was trying to find the money to buy the water plant, double the capacity and then provide the whole neighborhood with water, but right before Alice died, the last meeting before she died, she told me they didn’t want to pay a water bill.”
He sighed. Eventually a church group arrived to lead the parade. A handful or so people marched around a block without spectators. Smith packed up and left.
Residents ventured out to a few tents selling drinks and barbecue. Alice Washington’s husband, Benny Washington, arrived in a ball cap and work shirt. It pained the 56-year-old to see the sparse showing. “It used to be crawling with people.”
The part-time preacher felt his wife's absence. “She was a pillar in Charleston Park holding up a structure so that pillar is missing and the structure now is leaning.”
She was trying to get everybody off the wells, he said, because everyone complained to her about the water. Since she passed, momentum halted. “She knew exactly the go-to people to get these things done.”
Washington’s gaze drifted to the playground. He thought about the kids growing up on that water. How their minds don’t seem quite as sharp. How water is life.
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Read Something in the Water (part 1): How the government failed one Lee County community
Read Something in the Water (part 2): Residents fear disease lurks in their drinking water