Barnsdall water: Investigation into contaminated water supply and what the DEQ is doing about it

BARNSDALL, Okla. - It's a basic necessity no one can live without.

Water.

But in Barnsdall, the city's water plant is failing to meet federal regulations and it's leaving residents to consume cloudy, contaminated water.

"I wouldn't have moved here if I would have known there was a water problem here," said a resident who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from the city. We'll call him John.

"It's like paying to be poisoned, I don't understand, it's crazy."

John's wife, Jane as we'll call her, suffers from leukemia and lupus. She says her skin reacts badly to the water, with painful sores, making showers a nightmare.

"Whenever you get into the water, it burns it even more," says Jane.

2 Works for You investigators obtained years of water quality reports that show high levels of contaminants caused by chlorine reacting with leaves, algae, and other organic materials. Those contaminants make it to the tap due to out-of-date equipment at the water plant.

The EPA says drinking it over a long period of time increases your risks of getting cancer and may create health problems for babies and the elderly.

"They know there's a problem, and they don't want to fix it," says John.

The problem dates back to 2006. The Department of Environmental Quality filed the first of four active consent orders - agreements between a city and DEQ to fix a problem - demanding Barnsdall meet requirements of the federal Safe Water Drinking Act. Little has been done since. Shellie Chard-McClary, Water Quality Division Director of the DEQ says "it's not unusual" for a community to deal with this kind of issue for that long.

Records indicate the city has violated the order 87 times in the last decade. Those violations have resulted in more consent orders but no financial penalties.

"They are taking steps to address their issues, it's a little slow, funding is tight for everybody," said Chard-McClary.

Just 48 hours after our interview with Chard-McClary in which she said "the water is not posing an acute health hazard," DEQ inspectors made a surprise visit to Barnsdall.

They determined the water to be too cloudy and forced a mandatory boil order. The Oklahoma National Guard brought in a water tanker.

"You know I drink the same water as everyone else here in town, and it's not fair to anybody, not fair to me, not fair to anybody," said Mayor Brock Moore. According to the 2010 census, Barnsdall is home to 1,243 people. 

Moore, who inherited the problem when he took office last April, took out a $500,000 loan to install a new filtration system at the city's water plant.

"I don't think it will fix the whole problem," he said.

New water lines and other equipment are needed to eliminate the contaminants. That will cost more money than Barnsdall has, and the Mayor has been unable to get grants to help with the crisis.

With residents refusing to drink from the tap, the bottled water shelves at Affordable Foods Grocery Store empty quickly.

"We like our bottled water," joked employee Kim Barger.

The jokes fade though, when talk turns to water flowing from the tap.

"We eat healthy, we buy healthy so having to deal with water, I know is contaminated is kinda scary," said Barnsdall resident Debra Gordon

John says he will continue to pray something gets done, before Jane's health becomes worse.

"The people that's been elected office, they're not standing up for us. Who's going to come in here and stand up for us?" John asked.

Barnsdall isn't the only community facing water concerns. According to the DEQ, 101 public water systems in the state have open consent orders.

2 Works for You will continue investigating the issue.

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