‘The gloves are coming off:’ City of St. Charles finds new land for wellfield, threatens legal action against EPA

The $40 million project will take two years to complete, funded by rainy day fund.
Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 10:30 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The City of St. Charles is moving forward with a fix for its water system, before the EPA determines the cause of contamination and decides who is responsible for 1,2 Dichloroethylene and Vinyl Chloride in St. Charles’ Elm Point wellfield.

“Everyone would rather have clean drinking water for sure,” St. Charles resident Louis Bryant.

Bryant, sitting at her kitchen table, told News 4 she won’t admit to how much coffee she drinks in a day, but says the water she uses tastes great. She said she appreciates local government working to ensure it’s healthy to drink.

“The gloves are coming off,” Mayor Dan Borgmeyer said.

Mayor Borgmeyer told News 4, he isn’t waiting for the EPA to deal with the city’s contaminated well system. He said there is land, north of city limits, identified for a new $40 million wellfield.

The City of St. Charles has hired an engineering firm to do preliminary drilling.

“The water is safe to drink. but if it continues at this level, it’s not about the safety of water, it’s about the expense to the taxpayer,” Borgmeyer explained. “Why should my taxpayers pay 40 million for a new well when they didn’t contaminate.”

The City of St. Charles hired 212 environmental, an Ohio based company, to conduct independent studies of the city’s well water system.

According to Nick Galla, Director of the St. Charles Public Works Department, Well 6, one of the five wells turned off as of December 8, is at 2.1 parts per billion. That’s above the Maximum Contaminant Level or MCL, the metric used to measure water contamination. He said the other four wells shut off have detections of the contaminants below the MCL.

“Let’s say the MCL is 100, so you can drink 99 glasses and not get cancer but if you have the 100th you’re susceptible to cancer. We don’t buy into that,” Borgmeyer shared. “We do testing ourselves. As soon as a well is tainted, we shut it down.”

Galla said if the city was to continue to pump water in those wells, the contaminant would increase. They said the current water treatment facility is not designed to take out that level of contaminants.

“We asked them [The EPA] to open up four wells,” Borgmeyer shared. “If they can come in with a remediation process that takes the carcinogen level to what we will accept, then we will make an effort to do that but we have to upgrade our plant to handle those contaminants. The reason is that contaminants are well below the MCL in well nine but it’s in the water. I’m not going to take the chance to pump that into my plant, and then shut my plant down, because it has vinyl chloride in it.”

The St. Charles water system is only generating 25% of the needed water for customers. That means the city is buying 4.5 million gallons of water from the City of St. Louis.

Mayor Borgmeyer said it costs 73 cents per thousand gallons move water itself, where it costs $1.07 through the City of St. Louis. That’s why the city of St. Charles plans to absorb the cost of building the new wellfield.

Borgmeyer and the City of St. Charles insists Ameren Missouri is responsible for the contamination.

Craig Giesmann, the Director of Environmental Services for Ameren Missouri, told News 4 its interested in further EPA studies to confirm the contaminant’s source.

The EPA in a statement to News 4, said the City of St. Charles isn’t allowing the agency on the city property to conduct further testing. It reads:

The EPA is committed to investigating recent detections of 1,2 dichloroethylene (DCE) and vinyl chloride (VC) in the Elm Point Wellfield to ensure that there are no current or future threats to human health or the environment. To date, St. Charles residents continue to drink water that meets all federal and state drinking water requirements.

The Safe Drinking Water Act provides that the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for DCE and VC are based on long-term exposure. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, who implements the SDWA for the State of Missouri, bases MCL drinking water violations at the tap on a running annual average of four quarters of sampling data. Based on information the City has provided to EPA, the City chose to shut off City Well 9, a production well, based on a single uncollaborated, estimated data point significantly below the MCL (at the wellhead, not at the tap). Based on EPA’s data, none of the production wells shut down by the City are in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

To investigate the City’s concerns, EPA has repeatedly requested that the City of St. Charles provide EPA access to the site in order to conduct sampling, which is necessary to determine the source of contaminant concentrations in PZ-11, a monitoring well in the Wellfield. On October 13, 2022, the Agency notified the City of its intent to perform important characterization field work at the Site in late November/early December and that access to City property was critical in being able to perform the work in a timely manner. The EPA was prepared to mobilize its contractors to perform this work beginning Monday, December 5, 2022. However late on Friday afternoon, December 2, the City informed EPA of additional requirements needed before the City would allow access. These agreements are extensive and required legal review, which could not have been accomplished in the time between receiving the notification and the long-planned start of work.

Accordingly, without access granted by the City, the EPA was required to cancel the planned sampling event. The EPA is prepared to conduct additional sampling this winter if EPA obtains the City’s consent to access. The sampling is required to determine the next steps needed to address any contaminants in and around the City wells. Given the most recent delay caused by the lack of access, the earliest that EPA anticipates initiating field work would be in January, if the contractor and drilling equipment are available. If they are not available, an additional delay would be likely.

The work EPA had planned to start on December 5 was to evaluate the source of volatile organic compound (VOC) contamination that was unexpectedly found in PZ-11, a monitoring well near City Well 6, in December 2021. Ameren had planned to start this evaluation in April 2022, but due to access issues, EPA eventually took over the work in October. The source for this contamination has not been confirmed to be from the Ameren substation, where previous cleanup measures and routine sampling had shown the contaminated groundwater plume had been shrunk back to within the boundaries of the substation.

It is critical that EPA perform characterization sampling on City-owned property around City Well 6 to determine if the source of the contamination is from the Ameren substation or if there is another unknown source that is responsible for these new concentration levels. Once this determination has been made, EPA can either require Ameren to perform additional cleanup actions if the contamination is determined to be from the substation, or EPA will attempt to identify who is responsible for the contamination if it is not from the Ameren substation.

Once EPA is able to obtain site access from the City and reschedule the work with EPA’s contractor, it will take approximately two weeks to conduct the field work and EPA will be able to share the data with the public after it is analyzed by the lab and shared with the property owners.

EPA does not have any data collected from Ameren on PZ-11, the nearby monitoring well, since November 17, 2022, or from City Well 6 since October 28, 2022. Ameren had been conducting biweekly sampling of City Well 6 and PZ-11 since December 2021. However, on November 17, 2022, the City stopped providing Ameren access to perform sampling.

Mayor Borgmeyer said his office didn’t know about EPA’s additional testing until November 30th. He said the city denied access because the workers the EPA sent, were not insured.

“Why would they select a company knowing they don’t have the insurance knowing we require for access,” Borgmeyer shared. “Everybody who else goes in there has insurance. they are the EPA, they for sure ought to know a company needs insurance coverage for access.”

Currently, 75% of water for the city’s 70,000 residents, comes from the City of St. Louis. That’s an increased expense for the city and its taxpayers.

Mayor Borgmeyer said the building of a new well field will take two years.

The city will foot the bill with the rainy day fund, which is fueled by a percentage of taxpayer’s water bill. He wants to make clear resident’s rates are not going up.

“It’s still taxpayer money. We have to take it away from capital improvements so it’s a burden and not fair to taxpayers,” Borgmeyer added.

“At least everyone I know would rather have safe drinking water, so if it’s a choice between having contaminated water or the city spending $40 million so we have safe drinking water, I still think that’s worth it,” Bryant said.