TUPPER LAKE — Dozens of Tupper Lakers — around 80 people — came to a water quality meeting with state leaders on Thursday to air their grievances of the past 15 years of bad tap water, commiserate in the present state of things and beg for clean water in the future.
With state legislators and officials’ eyes on the project, and locals clamoring for fast action soon, the village is starting to form a plan for the future.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake — both attending the meeting in the Tupper Lake High School auditorium — said they sympathize with the residents. Looking at the photos of iron-tinted brown tap water, they said they wouldn’t want to drink it either.
At the meeting, residents asked for many things — money from the state to source water in a clean way once and for all, bottled water to tide them over, compensation for the damage the iron-laden water is doing to their appliances, and assurance they are not giving their children and grandchildren cancer. But mostly they want to put this whole thing behind them and not have to worry about their tap water anymore.
The crowd was just a portion of the village’s 2,200 water customers, but a Facebook group created by Jill Pickering, Lori Watson and Craig Gallahan called “Tupper Lake Water Issues” has almost 600 members now.
Village water department Superintendent Mark Robillard said the iron-rich water quality issue affects around one-third of their customers, with a high concentration of them in the Junction because they are closer to the wells where the iron comes from.
At the end of the meeting, village Trustee Jason McClain said no one was leaving happy. They just want clean, healthy water, and that is still a way off.
The village has a $4.8 million grant from the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation and $200,000 from the state Department of Health to source its tap water from Big Tupper Lake once again. The grant is for retrofitting the village’s currently defunct water filtration plant on Maddox Lane, on the shore of Big Tupper Lake off state Route 3, into a higher-tech microfiltration plant. This project is estimated to cost around $9 million. But it would likely take two years at an absolute minimum until it could be brought online.
Village Trustee Eric Shaheen put it on the state to fix this in a brief speech that got big applause from the crowd.
“This needs to be taken care of quickly,” Shaheen said. “We shouldn’t be trying to get funding to fix this problem. The state should be writing a blank check for this problem. … This needs to be streamlined. This should not cost this community a single dime. … This is an emergency.”
He said clean drinking water should be the “number one priority” for the state and that fixing it in Tupper Lake ASAP is a “no-brainer.”
“The state of New York writes blank checks to (the Olympic Regional Development Authority) and Lake Placid for $80 million,” Shaheen said.
Other residents said they see the state throwing money around — $22.9 million to the Adirondack Rail Trail and $600 million to the proposed Buffalo Bills stadium — so they see $9 million for Tupper Lake as a drop in the bucket.
Shaheen said he’s going to request the village declare a state of emergency at the next village meeting. That’s up to the board, and ultimately village Mayor Paul Maroun, Stec said. Stec said this goes a long way to get attention and usually streamlines the process.
Maroun said he doubts a state of emergency would change anything. Things just can’t happen overnight, he said. But he did indicate on Friday that he would call for a state of emergency if it would bring in state money.
How did the water get this way? Maroun said it’s a long story, dating back to 2008.
For years, village water customers had been getting letters from the state DOH telling them their water had chemical byproducts that could cause cancer. When organic material, drawn in with water from Big Tupper Lake and Little Simond Pond was mixed with chlorine, it produced trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which are linked to an increased risk for cancer after prolonged exposure.
Jill Pickering said she gets these letters four times a year. She’s worried about how the water is affecting her family.
“Do they have cancer?” she asked.
These byproducts are only harmful after long exposure to them, but locals have been using the water for years.
The village sought to fix the issue, and at the time, the state was only offering grants for underground wells in an effort to move away from groundwater sourcing. The wells were dug in 2018.
The village saw $3 million of “free money” from the state to dig wells, but the initial $7 million well project ballooned into an $11 million project. And the wells don’t work as well as they hoped.
After around 18 months, the water started carrying iron into people’s homes. On top of that, the wells don’t produce enough water for the whole village, so the village has been blending this well water with supplemental water from Little Simond Pond, which still mixes organic material with chlorine, producing the same carcinogenic byproducts that got them cited by DOH in the first place.
Alec Betancourt, an assistant engineer with the DOH’s environmental water supply bureau, said because it is such a low blend it is not a big issue since the mixed water has a low level of carcinogens. But it still fails the tests and residents don’t want to drink water they’re getting warnings from the state on.
“I’ve been drinking it for almost 70 years, and I’m still alive,” Maroun said.
Recently, Robillard drank a glass of the water in front of some of the concerned residents. He said his kids drink it at home.
“You’re nuts,” a man told him.
If the meeting did one thing, it brought the importance of fixing the issue to the forefront of the minds of the people who can help fix it.
“This project is absolutely a priority for us,” Betancourt said.
“Unless Governor Hochul walked in right now I don’t think the state could be any more aware than it is right now,” Stec said.
But the path for them to do that is fraught with paperwork, lengthy construction, seeking money and plenty of waiting around.
Bureaucracies are built to move slowly, Stec said. But he added, maybe with some pushing from him and Jones, they could speed it up and find state money to relieve local spending.
When things get “stuck” that’s when Stec and Jones pick up the phone and call the commissioners to get paperwork moving along again.
The residents who spoke carried frustration that has pent up over the years.
They’re paying for water they don’t drink and try not to bathe in. They’re paying for bottled water — sometimes by the pallet — to have something clear to drink. They pay to replace the countless appliances which have drastically shortened life spans due to the iron — washing machines, dish washers and hot water heaters. For years, they will be paying off the millions of dollars in debt the village took on to dig the unsuccessful well system that is causing them all these headaches. And they’ll have to pay for yet another solution to the problem, with just the hope that this time it will work for good.
Several people questioned why they still have to pay water bills. Maroun said they still have to pay for the water employees’ salaries, and the water plant, even with poor water quality.
Cindy Sweet said she won’t even give the tainted water to her cats. Others said it stains their laundry.
Maroun was trying to do damage control, but was getting visibly frustrated himself and shouting back and forth with several residents who were pushing him on the issue. He said he knows people are upset with him, but he’s working on fixing it as fast as possible.
Pickering asked if this meeting would have happened without their action in recent weeks. She felt Maroun hadn’t been acting on this quickly enough.
“We did the best we could do,” Maroun said. “It’s easy to make fun after a decision is made.”
He said the village did everything all the experts said to do.
Ian Yerdon, an engineer and project manager with the village’s water consulting firm C2AE, said hydrologists did tests and didn’t detect iron at the well sites. He said this issue was an “unforeseen” problem that cropped up only well after the wells were dug.
“You drilled at the base of a mountain called Iron Mountain,” Terry Moeller said to laughter and applause.
“DOH pushed the well,” Robaillard said. He didn’t want it from the start, but it was the only grant the village could get.
Robillard said they had enough well water to shut off the Big Tupper Lake plant. At the time they thought that was the only place the byproduct was coming from.
Several times, officials said a long-term solution is likely at least two years away.
Tammy Desmarais said two years is a long time for them to continue to deal with this water. She wondered what the village could do in the interim. Villagers wanted the state or the village to supply them with bottled water. They’re spending a lot of money to stay hydrated and even if bottled water only fixes some of their issues, it would be something.
Her family makes a weekly trip to a nearby spring to fill up five-gallon buckets with water. She wondered about the elderly, who are often on fixed incomes and for whom it is harder to get out shopping.
Val DeGrace said they should be given water like the federal government does for towns after a hurricane. This is a disaster, too, she said.
Maroun said they are considering adding phosphorus to the water.
Phosphorus sequesters iron in water and Betancourt said many communities use it. Maroun said another type of phosphorus is already used in the water currently.
Betancourt said this was the first he had heard of the phosphorus idea. The proposal hasn’t reached his desk yet and DOH has to review and approve the plan first.
Patti Nichols said the phosphorus might work in the interim to get rid of the brown water, but they still have the carcinogenic byproducts in their water.
Because the water is deemed safe to drink by the state, they don’t get any funding to get bottled water. But they aren’t drinking it. It looks gross and they have letters from the state telling them it can cause cancer.
Nichols said she is worried about her grandson-to-be bathing in this water when he’s taking his first baths.
On Friday, Maroun said he is looking at temporary ultraviolet disinfection with sand and charcoal filtration at the Lake Simond Pond location, to bypass the need to use chlorine, which would eliminate the carcinogenic byproducts from the water there. This wouldn’t produce enough water for the whole village, but it would allow them to reduce reliance on the wells and reduce the amount of iron in the water.
Maroun said he’s unsure what this would cost, and it would need DOH approval, but he said the village would tell the state to reimburse the village for the price of this system.
Maroun also said the village might look at temporary iron filters at the well site. These would likely be very expensive, but Maroun said they would tell the state it needs to pay the village for the filters.
He said this is likely cheaper than buying everyone water jugs for the next two years.
Maroun said he is going to meet with regional DOH representative Marlene Martin next week to discuss these ideas, as well as a long-term solution.
Thomas Haynes, the assistant director for engineering for DANC, there is a plan for the village to bring in a pilot trailer to begin seeing if a new, stronger filtration system will produce acceptable water from Big Tupper Lake.
The DOH needs to approve the pilot trailer and the package requesting this goes to the DOH next week from C2AE, Haynes said. It would take two to three weeks for the trailer to mobilize to Tupper Lake.
The trailer would run for three weeks, taking samples around the clock at the Maddox Lane site on Big Tupper Lake. If the plans would work, then the village would commission design plans for an updated plant and DOH would review these plans.
Then the project could go out to bid, which Haynes said could take eight to 10 months. Then the actual construction of the plant would need to be done.
Until then, Tupper Lakers are still searching for clean water.