Salt Contamination in Camden, Ohio – What Happened?

In the first article covering the water contamination in Camden, Ohio, H2Bid provided an overview of the problem and how the town was attempting to cope with the day-to-day issues. Camden’s municipal water system, fed from three town-maintained wells, showed salt contamination in 2010. By the end of the summer in 2010, the contamination had become so severe that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) declared the municipal water unfit to drink. That declaration left the town’s citizens scrambling to find alternatives to a resource that had been largely taken for granted. In this article we will explore the response of the State of Ohio and the town of Camden to the problem.
Ohio EPA Testing Reveals Problems
Beginning as early as 2009, the Ohio EPA had conducted tests on the three town-managed wells. At that time, one well (identified as the Number Two well) showed elevated levels of sodium and chloride and dissolved solids. By August of 2010, the town’s water began to exhibit a distinct salty taste. After further testing, the Ohio EPA determined that the salt contamination was accelerating and was clearly impacting two of the three wells.
At first, the Ohio EPA considered the salt pollution to be a nuisance, but not a health threat. “I want to be real clear here, this salt does not belong in drinking water,” said a spokesman from the Ohio EPA. “It is safe to drink in that it won’t make healthy people sick. That doesn’t matter it doesn’t belong in water.” That attitude changed, however, when the sodium and chloride levels continued to rise and trace levels of cyanide were detected. At that point the pollution had passed what is considered safe for potable water.
On September 14, 2010, the Ohio EPA officially ordered the village of Camden to identify a means of providing Camden’s residents with drinking water that was “both safe and palatable.” According to the order from the State, Camden was required to submit detailed plans for how it would accomplish this no later than September 30, 2010. The final solution was to be in place no later than October 30, 2010. Adding urgency to the situation, the State of Ohio threatened to revoke Camden’s license to operate a drinking water system if the timeline was not met.
Options and Poor Choices
The town had two plausible choices to remedy the situation. One option involved establishing a new well in an area free of contamination, the other option involved connecting to an established regional-municipal water system. The new well might prove to be faster and more cost-effective solution – assuming that a well site could be found that could offer sustainable, safe drinking water. The regional water system (the Southwest Regional Water District or SRWD) offered a guaranteed-safe solution, but would represent a more costly solution to the town. The Ohio EPA advocated for the connection to the SRWD and advised the town that the costs should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the polluters.
The town council met and voted to go along with the Ohio EPA recommendation to connect to the SRWD system – at least initially. As September gave way to October, the town council began to rethink the strategy. The town tabled payment to the engineering firm drawing up the plans for the connection and began to seriously discuss the use of a new well as either a permanent or temporary solution. The State of Ohio was concerned because any new well would need to supply a substantial volume of water and it did not seem feasible that a single site could supply the town’s needs. Even more concerning was a slip in the schedule caused by the town council’s change in plans; any solution would not be ready until December 24, 2010.
October passed into November. Incomplete plans, changes in strategies and finger pointing left the town’s residents wondering when the situation would be resolved. The Camden Council did itself no favors by holding several closed-door sessions, taking away the transparency that could allow the town’s residents and the State of Ohio to understand the rationale behind some of the choices.
In the end, a hybrid solution was reached. A temporary well was identified that could provide Camden with potable water but the aquifer was not sufficient for long-term use. Camden began pumping water from the new well (the Klapper well) on November 18, 2010. The Ohio EPA agreed to permit the town to utilize the new well until March 15, 2011. A permanent connection to the SRWD system was to be in place by that date.
There have certainly been many “lessons learned” on all sides and there will likely be more to come. While not perfect and leaving clear room for improvement in the areas of communication and transparency, the interaction of the State and the town of Camden do show that state and local governments can and must work together to identify workable solutions to tough problems.