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Plan dropped; wellhead likely safe

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This is the eleventh in a series of articles examining issues regarding local water.
• Click here to view all the articles the series

Sometime in 1988, a host of volatile organic chemicals were found deep in the aquifer that feeds the Village’s municipal drinking water wells. Around the same time, the federal government amended its Safe Drinking Water Act to mandate public water suppliers to establish wellhead protection plan programs to safeguard the quality of the groundwater. After about a decade of community work and discussion about how best to protect the local water, in 2001 the Village adopted a final wellhead protection and management program.

It’s been over 10 years since the recommendations for implementation of the plan were made, but there is much evidence that the plan was never systematically implemented. The leaders involved in conceiving the wellhead plan were embroiled in conflict for several years over how long it should take and how much it should cost. And even after Village Council finally adopted it, according to several News articles from 2004 and 2005, there was a period of change in Village leadership during which the plan appears to have been lost in the shuffle.

The Wellhead Protection Plan outlines each of the potential sources of pollution to the Village wellhead and suggests strategies to reduce the risk of impairment. It’s a solid, comprehensive plan, according to Village Council member Karen Wintrow this week. As the Village considers how to move forward with an aging water treatment plant that will soon either need to be remodeled or replaced, the wellhead protection plan could be a useful resource to consult, Wintrow said. Council discussed the wellhead plan at its retreat this spring and will consider how best to utilize it in the coming year.

“Now that we’re looking at this decision on our water system, certainly this document could help inform our discussions,” she said. “Someone needs to dust off that plan once a year because water is something we need to be actively concerned about.”

While implementation of the wellhead plan lost momentum, regulatory forces independent of the plan have addressed many of the highest priority threats to the local wellfield. And according to several local residents with expertise in the field, Yellow Springs’ wellfield is happily recharged by an underground water source that is already well protected from potential pollution. In many cases, according to Linda Aller, a Bennett & Williams consultant who helped draft the plan, what was of chief importance in the Village’s wellhead plan was educating the public and the various jurisdictions controlling the protection area about making responsible land use decisions that will protect the public wellfield.

“Protecting the water supply from everything is always important, but in Yellow Springs there weren’t a lot of big threats,” Aller said. “So one of the things that became more important was to educate the village about things like yard chemicals and septic tanks, because Yellow Springs was a thoughtful community and would be responsive if they knew.”

Tested history of wellhead plan

The Village first began to explore wellhead protection after a raft of toxic volatile organic compounds associated with Morris Bean & Company were detected in the buried valley aquifer around the wellhead in 1988. Toxic VOCs were also found in several of the Village wells and at the treatment plant itself between 1989 and 1992, according to the phase 1 and 2 wellhead report by consultant firm Panterra. Buoyed by the shift in federal policy and the Ohio EPA’s subsequent development of a state wellhead protection program, in 1990 the Village began work to develop a local wellhead protection plan, soon establishing a Wellhead Protection Advisory Commission to carry forth that task.

The Village approved the first two parts of the Wellhead Protection Plan, completed by the wellhead commission and Panterra, in 1998. With the third and final action phase yet to be completed, and mounting evidence that in addition to Morris Bean’s industrial spills, Vernay Laboratories and YSI, Inc. had also spilled solvents and toxic compounds into the village aquifers, Village Council became impatient to finish the plan.

In a series of highly controversial decisions in 2000, a divided Council voted to disband its wellhead commission and pay Columbus consultant Bennett & Williams $40,000 to complete the final “protection management” phase of the wellhead plan. Council approved the final phase of the plan in 2001. Council’s urgency in moving ahead, and what some commission members perceived as abrasive dealings with that group, was a contributing factor to the 2001 Council recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Phase one of the completed plan identifies the boundaries of the one- and five-year time of travel zones from the wellhead itself, located at the southern edge of Miami Township just east of the Little Miami River. Phase two addresses the potential sources of pollution in the wellfield, and phase three is a management plan to guide the protection of the wellfield.

While implementation of the plan remained a Council goal for several years following its adoption, implementation was only partially instituted.

Village Manager Rob Hillard left his position unexpectedly in 2005, and by the time Eric Swansen came on as Village manager the following year, implementing the plan had morphed into the long held goal of establishing a permanent protective greenbelt around the village “including the wellhead protection area.”

None of the current Village personnel interviewed for this story remembers using the wellhead protection plan to guide their work. Village Water and Wastewater Superintendent Joe Bates, who started working for Yellow Springs in 2006, rarely used the plan in his position, and Village Assistant Planner Ed Amrhein, who started with the Village in 2004, doesn’t recall ever consulting the plan either. Wintrow, who was first elected to Council in 2006, also doesn’t recall ever using the wellhead plan, but she believes there is a place for it now.

“I look at this very detailed plan we spent a lot of money on, and think it’s probably something that at least requires attention occasionally,” she said. “It’s our wellfield, and we need to be monitoring it.”

Work done to protect YS water

While the management plan did not prioritize its recommendations, Aller said last week that there were several areas of chief concern that she hoped would be addressed. They included potential pollution from Morris Bean and the Village wastewater treatment plant, overlay zoning in Miami, Xenia and Cedarville Townships (which included parts of the wellfield) and public education about the use of home and lawn chemicals and private septic systems. Whether it was due to the plan’s recommendations or other reasons, many of those prioritized items have been completed over the past 10 years.

Morris Bean and the Village wastewater treatment plant, both of which were and are regulated by the Ohio EPA, have made drastic improvements. Morris Bean completed a full cleanup of its chemical spill in 2008, and last year the wastewater plant completed a $1.3 million upgrade to improve the quality of the effluent that ends up in the Little Miami.

With regard to the overlay zoning, in 2004 the Miami Township Zoning Commission approved an overlay district that prohibits land uses such as junkyards, landfills, quarries and uses known to threaten the wellfield in the one-year time of travel zone. The same year Xenia Township approved a similar overlay district to protect the southern part of the Yellow Springs wellfield that lies in that township. And while Cedarville Township hasn’t yet established a wellhead overlay zone, Zoning Inspector Robert Ware said last week that the township would consider adopting one as long as it would continue to allow for the current agricultural use of the land.

According to water Superintendent Bates, some public education did occur as well, including a pamphlet dated 2001 that was sent to villagers explaining the importance of the wellfield and things they could do at home to reduce groundwater pollution.

The one recommendation that Bates believes was not but still should be addressed is an updated contingency plan in case the water plant were to shut down due to a tornado, earthquake or other disaster. Currently, the backup plan is to run an overground pipe to the nearest neighboring public water source; however, Bates believes the Village could at least consider installing a simple underground pipeline.

YS water well positioned

Some agree that the wellhead protection plan is still worth utilizing as a guide for future action. Tecumseh Land Trust Director Krista Magaw believes the wellhead plan is a useful safeguard, and she is honoring it by including part of the Village wellfield in a land conservation project started last year to permanently protect Glen Helen. In 2005 Magaw helped the Village under Hillard’s leadership to draft conservation easements for the Village property surrounding the wellhead. When Hillard left, the project fell away, but Magaw sees the effort in the Glen as a good opportunity to bring wellhead protection back into the picture.

And some believe, as does Magaw, that because the majority of the wellhead gets recharged by the water coming directly out of the Glen through the Little Miami River, Yellow Springs water is somewhat protected even before it gets to the wellfield. So protecting the Glen would be important to former wellhead commission members Peter Townsend and Scott Hammond, both hydrogeologists. Hammond believes that 70–80 percent of the recharge to the wellhead comes from the Little Miami River, whose waters are well protected by not only the Glen but by John Bryan State Park, the Vale, and the farms, including several belonging to his family, that surround most of the river upstream of the wellfield.

“If he [Hammond] and I are right, that most of the recharge occurs in the Glen, then we’re already protected,” Townsend said last week.


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