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CALL 6: Drinking water quality answers elusive

Posted at 10:27 PM, May 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-16 23:38:30-04

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you’re seeking information about the safety of your drinking water, it can be downright difficult to find those test results, according to a two month investigation from Call 6 Investigates.

Christy Julian of Elwood complained to the city and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) about concerns over her drinking water.

“The water is brown,” said, a 32-year resident of Elwood. “A couple times a week, it’s brown, and when it settles, all this stuff is at the bottom.”

Julian said the water is full of particles that are staining her toilet and plugging up her appliances.

“My kids are drinking this," Julian said. “When we call, they tell us, ‘It’s safe, the kids are fine.’ I have a problem believing it’s safe."

Julian is not alone.

In March, RTV6 spoke with even more Elwood homeowners concerned about the safety of their water.

MORE | Elwood homeowners upset about brown water

"There was black stuff floating in the water," said Jodi Alexander, Elwood resident.

After concerns arose in Flint, Michigan, about lead and devastating health effects, homeowners are eager for information about the safety of their drinking water.

MORE | Teamsters delivering bottle water to flint | Three to be charged in Flint water crisis

Call 6 Investigates searched for recent and current information on the safety of Elwood’s drinking water, but ran into several roadblocks.

Utilities manager Glen Murray and Mayor Todd Jones both declined Call 6 Investigates requests to do an on-camera interview about Elwood’s drinking water.

The Madison County Health Department told Call 6 Investigates to contact the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

So Call 6 Investigates went to IDEM’s website looking for test results that provide Elwood’s water is safe, as they told Julian and other homeowners.

Call 6 Investigates found the most recent lead and copper results were from 2014, and even those tests were unclear.

The state’s drinking water database does not indicate whether the test results show the water is safe or unsafe to consume.

Call 6 Investigates Kara Kenney asked IDEM’s drinking water Branch Chief Mary Hollingsworth to help navigate their website.

Hollingsworth struggled to find information, including drinking water inspection results, on the safety of Elwood’s drinking water.

Hollingsworth admitted the website is confusing and needs to be improved.

“I’m not going to deny that,” said Hollingsworth.

Access to drinking water information is a big sticking issue for the federal government amid outrage surrounding Flint.

Just this February, the EPA sent a letter to Indiana and others states asking them to enhance public transparency and accountability.

Call 6 Investigates found the IDEM website often does not spell out for people whether the levels are safe or not, and often uses insider lingo the public likely doesn’t know.

“There’s always room for improvement,” said Hollingsworth. “We’re looking at ways to explain things.”

At the request of Call 6 Investigates, IDEM collected samples from Christy Julian’s tap and tested it.

Results show high levels of manganese, which is considered a secondary contaminant.

“Health wise, it won’t affect you,” said Hollingsworth. “It just looks bad.”

IDEM’s results also said that a sample Christy Julian collected was high in iron as well.

The water is discolored related to Elwood flushing their water mains, and the fact that Christy Julian’s home is connected to a smaller water main, according to IDEM’s test results.

IDEM is working with Elwood and communities across the state to address aging infrastructure.

Many of the water mains and service lines across central Indiana are more than 100 years old.

The Citizens Energy water lab phone rings a lot lately with homeowners asking questions about lead.

“Our finished water coming from our plants has been non-detectable for lead,” said Mark Gray, Lab Services Manager. “I can’t remember a detection for lead. Most of the lead is from customers' internal plumbing."

Citizens Energy counts more than 50,000 lead service lines, the most of which are concentrated in older homes.

Below: Citizens Energy data on estimated lead lines per ZIP code.

Indiana American Water estimates just over 1,000 lead service lines.

Replacing aging infrastructure is costly, and you the ratepayer end up footing the bill.

As for Christy Julian, she’s willing to pay more on her water bill if it means clean water.

“It's not going to be an easy fix,” said Julian. “It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of money, but in the meantime, we have to figure out a way to keep the people who live here safe."

Hollingsworth said a Flint-type disaster will not happen on her watch.

However, aging infrastructure can bring contaminants into the drinking water and make it unsafe.

Water systems are typically inspected every three-to-five years.

Violators can be fined up to $2,500 a day.

The Town of Birdseye fired its water chief after IDEM raised concerns about the town failing to test for lead and other contaminants.

“We want to make sure everybody in this state has safe drinking water,” said Hollingsworth. “That’s our goal.”

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission received a total of 644 complaints about water utilities, and so far in 2016 has received 171 complaints.

Most of the complaints pertained to billing issues.

IDEM also fielded dozens of complaints about water, including lack of water pressure, odors, and concerns about contamination.

If you have an older home, you may have lead pipes.

HOW TO TELL IF YOU HAVE LEAD PIPES:

Do a magnet test. If the magnet does not stick to the pipe coming into the house, try scraping it with a knife. Lead is soft and will scrape off the pipe and a shiny surface will appear.

If you do have lead pipes, experts say you should get them replaced or at least let the water run for several minutes on cold before drinking it.

MORE | EPA: Basic information about your drinking water | Citizens Energy Group: Lead and copper in drinking water

CONCERNED ABOUT WATER SAFETY:

If you’re concerned about the safety of your water, you can call the utility directly, the county health department, IDEM or the Indiana State Department of Health.

Utilities are required to put out a water quality report every year, as well, and many agencies will test your water at the tap if you ask for it.

REPORTS | Citizens Energy Group | American Water

You can also call the the Safe Drinking Water Act Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.