Lee County, health department to offer free water testing to Charleston Park homes after News-Press report
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
Lee County and health department officials plan to offer free water testing to “as many homes as possible” in rural Charleston Park.
The community of about 200 residents, most of them low-income and African-American, has struggled with bad drinking water for decades.
“Lee County staff has met recently on numerous occasions with Department of Health representatives and various commissioners related to water testing at Charleston Park,” wrote county spokeswoman Betsy Clayton in an email. “There is a plan in place.”
The water sampling, expected to happen in early December, comes after coverage in The News-Press about the lack of clean running water in the settlement set aside for black farmworkers in 1926 that sits amid orange groves in rural Alva.
Most of the community is on private wells, many of them old and shallow. For several years, many residents have lived like they are under a boil-water notice. They rely on bottled water for drinking, brushing their teeth, and cooking.
Health experts have flagged contaminants in the water supply dating to the 1980s and residents have voiced water quality concerns to agencies for about as long.
LaShay Russ, resident coordinator at the Charleston Park community center, credited the articles for prompting the new plan. Within a day of meeting with county staff, the health department, and Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann on Tuesday, she had recruited 16 volunteers to have water from their sinks and wells tested.
“I want to start from the bottom and move up,” Russ said. “I don’t want them to just fix one thing … I want to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s because I don’t want to hear any excuses from the people who are supposed to help.”
Russ is also a co-pastor of the Charleston Park church Liberation Outreach International. Her church does not cook with its well water for events either and uses bottled water. “We only flush a toilet with it and wash our hands.”
The health department tested several shallow wells in 2015 and January 2017 and found total coliform bacteria in most and elevated nitrate levels in some before stepping back from finding a more long-term solution. The EPA links the presence of coliform bacteria in well water to reoccurring gastro-intestinal illnesses. Several residents described symptoms consistent with such illnesses to The News-Press. Others described breaking out in rashes after bathing.
In 2010, a Lee health department director provided an overview to Lee County Human Services of contaminants, such as radium and sodium, from a Charleston Park test well at 150 feet that made the raw water “unsuitable for potable consumption” without reverse osmosis. The median household income there is $16,000 and many families cannot afford that level of treatment. The closest place to buy water is miles away.
The past health department effort focused mostly on bacteria. The next round of testing will include total coliform and E. coli bacteria, and nitrates, according to a health department administrator.
But Charleston Park’s well water issues appear to run deeper than those contaminants. The News-Press recently sampled a single Charleston Park well for testing of hundreds of contaminants. Along with testing positive for bacteria, the water far exceeded maximum contaminant levels for sodium, chloride, and total dissolved solids, or all salts and minerals. The total dissolved solids estimate was more than six times the standard. The sodium count was 20 times the EPA recommendation for drinking-water sodium for people on very low-sodium diets.
Such results may point to saline water contamination of Charleston Park’s underground drinking water supply in the sandstone aquifer, which underlays the water table aquifer, a hydrologist said. Shallow wells pull from the water table aquifer.
"The reason it is non-potable in the sandstone could be from contamination from an old, improperly-abandoned Floridan aquifer well," said Greg F. Rawl, a local water resources expert. Thousands of these deep wells, mainly used for agricultural irrigation, were drilled in Southwest Florida prior to the 1970's.
The saline water intrusion threat to the county's fresh groundwater supply from these wells became such a concern to the South Florida Water Management District that, in 1979, it began a program to plug about 2,000 such wells in Lee County with short or corroded casings, said a 1990 U.S. Geological Survey report.
A cost estimate for testing for the three contaminants was not yet available but bacteriological testing for a sample delivered to the health department costs $20. Recent testing Rawl contracted on a single sample for a full range of drinking water parameters cost $1,373, he noted.
Meanwhile, Russ said Blankets & Blessings is providing bottled water donations to Charleston Park. The Lee County nonprofit that helps homeless individuals and families in need also began collecting tax-deductible donations and aims to install more intensive water treatment for a few Charleston Park families by Christmas.
Clayton said county staff are working with Russ to raise awareness about the testing "via word of mouth and a planned mail piece." Russ hopes to recruit more homes for testing in the coming weeks.
“I’m not going to stop until we figure it out,” she said.
How to Help
Blankets & Blessings has collected a "literal ton" of bottled water and plans to deliver it to the community soon.The outreach group is also collecting tax-deductible donations to help Charleston Park residents get clean running water on a longer term basis through water treatment systems. 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 email@example.com or for donations firstname.lastname@example.org.