Group's wish: Clean drinking water for Christmas in Charleston Park
Residents worry contaminated well water is making them sick. Andrew West and Janine Zeitlin/news-press.com
Volunteers rallied around a common goal: Clean water for Christmas in Charleston Park.
“The solution is from the bottom up,” said Fort Myers resident Neil Volz at a meeting this week of advocates concerned about the rural eastern Lee County community’s enduring trials with bad well water. “When you realize the contours and costs, compared to the life and potential that is impacted, we should be able to join hands and walk this out.”
The hope is to provide a filter and an under-the-sink reverse osmosis system, estimated to cost about $1,200 a home, to one or two families by Christmas and gradually expand outreach in the neighborhood of about 200 residents bordered by orange groves.
The group discussed potential solutions Monday at Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida, which employs a resident coordinator at the Charleston Park community center, also a United Way House.
Volz, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, visited Charleston Park after The News-Press series detailed residents' decades-long struggles with dirty drinking water. The coalition advocates on behalf of marginalized communities.
Charleston Park began in 1926 as a refuge for black farm workers. White farmers bought the land to sell cheaply to workers in rural Alva after white residents complained of their presence, said a farmer’s descendant.
Residents have brought water concerns to government agencies for decades, but a fix has not been found. Health experts flagged contamination issues dating to the 1980s. Tests of some wells have identified radium, a carcinogen, sodium, nitrites and nitrates, bacteria, and other contaminants.
The Lee County health department tested several shallow wells in 2015 and 2017 and found total coliform bacteria in most and elevated nitrate levels in some. The EPA links the presence of coliform bacteria in well water to reoccurring gastro-intestinal illnesses. Some residents described symptoms consistent with such illnesses to The News-Press.
Kunta and Christal Bolden, parents of young children who appeared in The News-Press series, shared their stories at the meeting. The News-Press has provided information to the group from its reporting. Christal Bolden described rashes that she, her son, and her mother developed after bathing in the water.
“You can touch your body and feel slick,” said Christal Bolden.
Kunta Bolden travels to his uncle’s home in Lehigh Acres to shower.
“Most of the water in Lehigh, you can put salt and stuff in it, and bleach tablets,” he said. “You cannot put nothing in that water. It’s so nasty.”
“Even a mechanic told me don’t use that water in your car...because after a while it will destroy your engine," Kunta Bolden said.
For several years, many residents have been living like they’re under a boil-water notice. They buy bottled water to drink, cook with, and brush their teeth. Septic tanks, agricultural chemicals, and naturally-occurring contaminants could be polluting wells but as each well is different and there is no required testing of private wells, it’s hard to define the scope of the problem.
Experts have said more intensive water treatment is needed than what exists in many of the homes to make the water fit to drink. In 2010, a Lee health department director provided an overview to Lee County Human Services of contaminants in a Charleston Park test well that made the raw water “unsuitable for potable consumption.” He offered possible solutions, including reverse osmosis and a water utility, to provide other Charleston Park homes with drinkable water.
The state of private wells legally falls to homeowners, but an investment in reverse osmosis carries a steep price for residents with a median annual household of around $16,000.
Document: 2010 Charleston Park Report
Blankets & Blessings, a Lee County nonprofit that helps homeless individuals and families in need, agreed to collect tax-deductible donations for the clean water effort. “It’s heart-wrenching, what I read,” said Kerry Constantine, a co-founder of the all-volunteer group. “If we can help them get clean water, we’re in.”
At the meeting, LaShay Russ, Charleston Park resident coordinator and a pastor of a church there, said residents are open to assistance. “Most everybody that I’ve shared with that this is going to take place have said, ‘OK, OK,’ but I told them, ‘I need you to say OK when these people show up in your yard.’”
“They have a problem trusting people.”
This has complicated past efforts. Around 2010, Lee County Human Services offered a program to replace wells for free as many are old and shallow but only eight people responded. Deeper wells can help reduce the potential for contamination but they are more expensive and would not fully resolve poor quality.
Part of the mistrust, Russ said, comes from how billing was handled when a street in Charleston Park was connected to a private utility that serves migrant housing. “They’re supposed to be on a water system but most of them are still on the wells.”
Some homes were connected to the utility due to a sewage plant placed too near to their private wells, a retired county official said. Lee County commissioners granted a variance and exception in the early 1980s to build the sewage plant. “Those private homes were contaminated by our sewer plant,” said Fort Myers Councilman Johnny Streets, who learned about the problem as the Lee County Housing Authority executive director long after the project was built.
The authority owned the plant, the utility, and the migrant housing before selling it to a farming company. “The agreement was the Lee County Housing Authority was supposed to bring in water for free. That was not the case because some people paid and some people didn’t.”
Health officials had demanded the wells be tapped, Streets said, though Russ said many people are still using the wells. The sewage plant sits in the heart of the community near the center and the park. The experience gave residents "a bad taste” for changes related to water, Russ said.
Streets said he looked for solutions as the authority's director. He pointed to a need for modern water infrastructure. “I’m only looking for solutions to move forward.”
An online petition appealing to Lee County commissioners has collected more than 150 supporters. Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass planned to ask county staff to review what the county can or can’t do but would like to see nonprofits, volunteers, and businesses work together. “Everybody should have the same water quality no matter where you live at. ...People shouldn’t have to deal with that in 2017.”
But Pendergrass said he didn’t want to step on Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann’s toes. Mann represents Charleston Park. Mann described The News-Press stories as “sensationalistic” and doubted the existence of unsafe water in a guest opinion: “I have a personal interest as well as a public obligation, to be absolutely certain all of us have safe drinking water. And I am totally confident that is the case.”
At Monday’s meeting, Russ said she planned to meet with Mann this month. Fred Richards, vice-president of community support services of Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida, voiced support for volunteer efforts.
“I think this is a good cause,” Richards said. “Let’s get this ball rolling.”
How to Help
Blankets & Blessings is collecting tax-deductible donations to help Charleston Park residents get clean water. Donations can be made at blanketsandblessings.com and checks can be earmarked for "clean water." Volunteers have also created a Facebook page, Clean Water for Charleston Park. For information on getting involved, contact Carmen Salomé at firstname.lastname@example.org or for donations email@example.com.