Disconnected: Thousands in Delaware lack access to safer public water

In rural and unincorporated parts of fast-growing Sussex County, 98,000 residents rely on private wells. In many areas, the water is tainted, undrinkable.

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Consuelo McGowan from SERCAP collects samples for testing at a mobile home in Ellendale, Del. McGowan works for a non-profit that provides kits for testing well water. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Consuelo McGowan from SERCAP collects samples for testing at a mobile home in Ellendale, Del. McGowan works for a non-profit that provides kits for testing well water. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Consuelo McGowan was treading the dusty grounds of a rental mobile-home community in Ellendale, Delaware, known as “The Hole.” Trash and old furniture were strewn all around, though McGowan and other volunteers cleaned up a few months ago.

She climbed the concrete steps of an old gray home and knocked on the door. “Hello! I’m here to offer free water test kits,” she said cheerfully.

The people who live here are forced to drink bottled water. Their private wells are contaminated, and the water that comes from them is smelly and undrinkable — it has tested positive for high levels of nitrates and iron. For decades, Ellendale residents pushed to connect to a public water system — and by October 2021, they will, thanks to a successful 2018 referendum.

“A success for me would be everyone having clean water, and the same rights most people have. You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to have access to drinking water,” McGowan said.

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Her organization, SERCAP (for Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project), helped Ellendale with its referendum.

Now, it’s offering free water test kits to residents throughout rural and unincorporated parts of fast-growing Sussex County, where thousands of people live too far from a municipality to be served by public utilities.

Many residents of the county report their well water is unsafe or undrinkable. To connect to a public water supply, they must first clear several high hurdles.

With help from State Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, McGowan’s goal is to educate those residents about the importance of knowing what’s in their water.

New Hope Road mobile homes as seen on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Ellendale, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

On this particular day, Solomon Presley stepped onto his porch and told McGowan and Shupe that, since his childhood, the water in Ellendale has smelled and tasted like rotten eggs.

“You can’t go around, taking a bath, smelling like egg, and trying to hide it with cologne or perfume on your body,” Presley said. “We can take our clothes to the laundromat. But when you brush your mouth out, you have to use bottled water, because you don’t want that taste in your mouth.”

He used to drink the water as a child, he said. But as an adult, “I don’t mess with it.”

“You can cook with it, but you shouldn’t drink it,” Presley told McGowan.

“If it’s high in nitrates, cooking won’t cook off the nitrates. It actually makes it worse,” she warned.

“I thought you cook with it and it burns off whatever’s in it,” Presley said.

“If you have bacteria problems that will boil off, but if it’s nitrates, that just condenses it,” McGowan replied.

Angialeen Mullen runs tap water to demonstrate the horrible smell coming from the faucet, in Ellendale, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

At another home in the neighborhood, McGowan and Shupe visited with Angialeen Mullen, who proclaimed that she had the “biggest mouth down at the church” while advocating for the public-water referendum. She gladly accepted a water test kit, which will be sent to the Delaware Public Health Laboratory for analysis.

Mullen said she spends about $30 a week on bottled water for cooking and drinking.

“It affects me hard, because I work at Royal Farms, so it’s not like I have a great job with a lot of money,” she said. “Just give me what I deserve, and I deserve clean water.”

Nationwide, one in seven Americans rely on private wells because they don’t have access to  public water systems.

In Delaware, about 173,000 residents depend on private wells. In Sussex County alone, 98,000 people, or more than half the county’s population, have them.

“Sussex County has had a long history of a rural agriculture economy, and therefore the people that live out in the rural areas are far enough from the towns and cities they have their own private water systems. They don’t live close enough to get what we call city water from a public water utility,” said Gerald Kauffman of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center.

“But also, it’s close to the Atlantic Coast, which means it’s one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States,” Kauffman said. “So many people move to Sussex County for the ocean and the low tax rate. So, we have a situation where more people are moving out into the country and they have no other choice but to be on individual wells.”

The state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which sets well-drilling rules, approves about 1,200 domestic well permits a year. That number has held steady for the past decade, but only a small percentage of permits are issued to replace old wells — the majority are for new ones, said Steve Smailer of DNREC. That’s because new homes are built in underdeveloped areas with no public utility management.

“Until we get fully built, I don’t really see that changing for a while,” Smailer said.

Many people prefer well water for its pure taste and affordability. But in several communities, residents report their water is either unsafe or undrinkable. Some, like the people in Ellendale, have tried for decades to connect to public water.

Private well contamination affects low-income residents the most because they can’t afford home filtration systems that eliminate pollutants like nitrates. The organic compounds, common in agricultural areas, don’t have a specific look, taste or smell, so someone with a private well may not be aware the water supply is tainted.

And despite recommendations to test their water annually, less than 2% of people with private wells do so.

Governments have no oversight in such situations because private wells are not protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

“They are completely unregulated,” said Andrea Green, co-founder of the group Keep Our Wells Clean. “There’s nothing in state law that says a private well has to be tested when you purchase property.”

Contamination: Finding the culprit

When Jane Navitski and her family moved to Milton about two years ago, their well water tested positive for nitrates above the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 10 milligrams per liter.

That standard is based on a 1950s study reporting that any levels above it could affect pregnant women and infants 6 months and younger and contribute to blue baby syndrome, a condition in which a baby’s skin turns blue due to decreased hemoglobin in the blood.

Initially, a faulty septic system was blamed for Navitski’s private well issues. But after repairs were made, the nitrate levels gradually increased to 19 milligrams per liter. That’s a common problem in Milton, where residents hold nearby chicken farms and a local septic pumping business responsible.

Navitski’s family cannot pay thousands of dollars to install a whole-house reverse osmosis system that could filter out the nitrates. They do have an under-the-sink version, yet Navitski still worries about her two kids, ages 9 and 5.

“It’s good my kids don’t like bathrooms — it’s ridiculous, but it’s true. You don’t want to use that water,” she said.

“My daughter cuts something, like an apple, and then she wants to wash this plastic knife and I’m watching the faucet she’s using, and I don’t let her actually go around this sink,” she said. “My stress levels, they go really high, because I do believe cancer and all other diseases go from what you eat and breathe.”

Jane Navitski watches while her daughter, Eva, washes grapes under a tap connected to the family’s reverse osmosis system. She can’t use the normal tap because of the nitrates in the water. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Kauffman, of the University of Delaware, said that if a well is deep enough, the water can be the purest and tastiest a person can drink. Aside from the cost of its construction, having a well sometimes can be less expensive than public water service, too.

But private wells require management, he said: Though most are safe, issues can arise, especially in shallow wells less than 50 feet from the surface.

High nitrate levels are caused by fertilizers, leaking septic systems (used by households that aren’t connected to public sewers) and outdated farming practices.

About 20 years ago, Delaware formed a Nutrient Management Commission to improve manure management. Farmers were advised to cover soil, build farm ponds, and install barns and roofs for animals so that when it rains manure doesn’t come in contact with fertilizer.

It’s an effective way to reduce nitrates, Kauffman said, but though the effects of legacy farming are reversible, that can take several years.

“Some studies have set a decade for the water to go through and purify itself,” Kauffman said. “But if the load is eliminated or reduced, nature will clean up its own groundwater aquifers.”

In the Sussex County communities of Millsboro and Milton, residents have complained for years about the practices at Mountaire and Allen Harim farms.

Keep Our Wells Clean is fighting the construction of a lagoon by Artesian Wastewater Management that would accept chicken-processing wastewater from the Allen Harim plant in Harbeson. The project is for the use of spray irrigation, which involves collecting the wastewater, storing it in a lagoon, and spraying it on fields in an effort to soak up nitrates.

But Milton residents like Navitski, whose wells already have high nitrate levels, fear the practice will make problems worse.

Keep Our Wells Clean says a septic pumping company, Clean Delaware, has sprayed septic water for more than 20 years, causing private well contamination. Over the years, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has issued both Clean Delaware and Allen Harim notices of violations.

Anthony Scarpa of Keep Our Wells Clean said that DNREC is lax on fining these companies, and that the agency gives businesses too much time to take corrective action. Residents say state legislators frequently ignore their concern about their wells.

“I know they don’t want to hurt the poultry industry, because it’s such a large job producer in Delaware. However, if you’re looking at a large employer destroying private wells for people who live here, there’s something wrong here,” Scarpa said.

“This problem should not be something children or some older adult with a suppressed immune system should have to deal with,” he said. “We need to identify who is responsible for the contamination and push as hard as we can to get these state agencies to stop whatever is going on that creates the contamination.”

An Allen Harim representative declined to comment for this article. Representatives of Clean Delaware did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Millsboro resident Lew Podolske outside his home. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

In Millsboro, many residents are under a gag order stemming from a lawsuit against Mountaire Farms for allegedly polluting their well water, causing decreased property values and adverse health effects.

Last month, the chicken producer settled with DNREC for violating its spray-irrigation and land-application permits. According to the agency, Mountaire’s application of nitrogen to farm fields as a fertilizer or through spray irrigation of treated wastewater and land application of wastewater-treatment plant sludge contributed to exceedingly high nitrate levels in Millsboro residents’ drinking water.

Mountaire is now required to offer residents an alternative water supply, and take environmental corrective measures such as relocating its production wells within the spray fields to establish a pump and treat system.

Lew Podolske and his wife didn’t join the lawsuit because they live in Millsboro only part time. They, like many Millsboro residents, enjoy stunning waterfront views, playing with their dog in the yard, and visiting nearby beaches.

But near those beautiful views are the Indian River Power Plant and Mountaire Farms, which is so close to some homes its spray-irrigation equipment is in their backyards.

Mountaire Farms equipment is in some Millsboro residents’ backyards. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

“It’s like a silent killer,” Podolske said during a drive through the quiet community.

“We’re getting it from all directions here. It’s a pretty area, but there’s just really an incredible amount of pollution that’s gone on unchecked for decades.”

Podolske and his neighbors believe the state prioritizes businesses over the environment.

“You would think people would be entitled to clean water,” he said. “Yes, people have the right to farm and have companies, but they shouldn’t have the right to poison other people’s water.”

A 2018 report conducted by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays found Mountaire had a history of chronic permit violations. Despite that, DNREC and EPA didn’t force Mountaire to comply with various orders, including an EPA order from 2003, the report states.

“It was a surprise how far back the issues with the facility and water quality went,” said the organization’s Chris Bason. “I think it’s essential information to educate the public on the amount of pollution entering the waterways that the public relies on.”

Mountaire representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A street where Mountaire farms lies opposite homes. Its spray irrigation system is literally in their backyards. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Health hazards and the importance of testing

Warnings associated with consuming nitrates above the advised level are directed at pregnant women and children under 6 months, said Keith Mensch of Delaware’s Office of Drinking Water.

“We have to remember we consume nitrates every day in foods; it’s in vegetables, it’s in processed meats,” he said. “So we consume probably a lot more nitrates in food than we ever would get in drinking water.”

However, retired public health physician Mohammed Akhter, a former Washington, D.C., Health Department director, said the effect of nitrates could be greater than previously known.

Some studies have indicated nitrates can worsen arthritis; one study found links between nitrates and Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Delaware has one of the highest cancer rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Akhter argued that it’s important to study the causes and effects of frequently diagnosed diseases.

“These things don’t happen automatically. It is what we drink, what we take into our bodies, what we smoke, what we eat,” said Akhter, who added he was shocked about private well contamination upon moving to southern Delaware when he retired.

“These things are important, and we need to take notice of it that we have a problem in our communities,” he said.

He believes Delaware should establish a Sussex County health department to research health problems there.

“Sometimes, the poor rural communities are neglected,” Akhter said. “I think this is one of those circumstances where they’re poor, they don’t have many resources or political power, so these things are neglected. It’s not a malicious neglect, it’s benign neglect. But it still hurts those affected — like in Flint, Michigan.”

Experts recommend that well water be tested annually. Delaware’s Division of Public Health provides two types of water test kits for $2 each, which can be purchased at various locations in all three counties in the state.

“It’s up to us if we’re on private wells to understand our drinking water,” said Mensch, of the state Office of Drinking Water, noting that it’s “a lot more complex than people realize.”

“It’s not just what’s in the ground,” he said. “It’s what’s in the pipes, the well construction.” Homeowners must ensure their well head is properly constructed and has proper grading around it as well.

Yet the Division of Public Health distributes only about 2,000 water test kits per year — that’s just slightly above 1% of homes with wells.

“People look at the ingredients on the cereal box more so than what comes out of their tap,” said Smailer of DNREC. “It’s not a difficult thing to do, but for most people it’s out of sight, out of mind. ‘It tastes good, I don’t have a problem.’”

This year, DNREC will encourage increased water testing through a pilot program. If residents complete a DNREC survey following construction of a new well, they will receive a water test kit free of charge.

Residents also can learn a lot by obtaining copies of their well completion reports from DNREC. Shallow wells near agriculture are more prone to nitrates, while deep wells are prone to iron. Wells along the coast are susceptible to saltwater intrusion.

Public drinking water isn’t immune from issues either, Mensch said.

“Public drinking water comes from the same groundwater that people get their private drinking water. It’s just that public drinking water is sampled and analyzed on schedule, and it’s treated,” he said. “The addition of chlorine to drinking water can cause levels of disinfection byproducts, and those are contaminants that are a health concern over certain levels, too.”

While public water is closely monitored for contaminants, however, residents with private wells can have contaminated water without knowing it.

Just a few weeks after McGowan of SERCAP and State Rep. Shupe visited Ellendale, they offered free water test kits 5 miles away in Lincoln.

Residents of this rural area, which has no police station, haven’t complained about water issues. Still, some received negative results a couple weeks after their well water was tested in the lab.

“Yeah, I was surprised, because I just got my water put in — it was a $1,000 well,” said Majesker Watts, whose well supply tested positive for high nitrates.

Watts, 69, who is guardian to her two grandchildren, now buys bottled water with food stamps. But to address the nitrates, she must install a reverse osmosis system — something she can’t afford. The filtration systems can cost about $500 for a basic under-the-sink version, or up to $5,000 for one that filters the entire house.

“My husband is passed, and I got two grandkids, and my roof is falling in, so I have to get that fixed,” Watts said.

Politician Bryan W. Shupe seen knocking doors to distribute water testing kits to residents of Lincoln Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Shupe has introduced legislation that aims to provide low-income residents funds to install reverse osmosis systems. Families earning 200% below the state’s median income would qualify for a portion of a $500,000 grant, which would come from already available money in a state health department fund.

“A lot of people don’t have that kind of money,” Shupe said. “They need to buy food to put on the table, they need to buy medicine for their family. I think we’ve taken water for granted for too long. We really haven’t focused on the environment.”

Last week, Gov. John Carney announced he will propose $50 million in his next budget to address water quality. Part of the funds will address well water in low-income neighborhoods.

Wesley Hayes, Jr describes Delaware Avenue after the sewer line was put in Monday, Sept.16, 2019, in Frankford, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Are you on the right side of the tracks?

Wesley Hayes Jr. walked along Delaware Avenue in unincorporated Frankford, stopping before a train track that crossed the street. In this part of Sussex County, a person’s access to public water depends on which side of the track they live on.

Hayes, who lives on the wrong side of the track, has pushed for several years for the seven homes on his street to be connected to city water. He inherited a legacy of advocacy from his mother, who helped residents get public sewers here in the early 2000s.

Hayes said that, historically, some Town Council members refused to annex parts of unincorporated Frankford because most residents here were Black. The current council is more willing, he said.

“They’ve put all these obstacles in front of us, and that’s one of the driving points to keep you going; because you know something’s not right,” Hayes said. “We’re not asking for anything special, just clean drinking water, something we deserve, and I think it’s fair.”

Inside the banquet hall of Trinity Holiness Church on Delaware Avenue, Dora Bell-Isler led the way to the kitchen. She turned on the faucet, and the smell of rotten eggs seeped through the building, getting stronger and stronger until it became nauseating.

Dora Bell-Isler runs tap water to demonstrate the horrible smell coming from the faucet Monday, Sept.16, 2019, in Frankford, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

In the hall’s bathroom, the sink and toilet were brown from a buildup of rust.

The culprit is iron. There are no known severe health effects of the natural element. However, the water is impossible to drink or cook with.

“It makes you feel bad, especially when you’re contributing to the town,” Bell-Isler said.

Town Council vice president Greg Welch said the current administration wants to help. But residents must agree to be annexed into the town to build its tax base, because connecting to public water would cost upwards of $800,000. Annexed homes also must be contiguous.

“The city always said it was an issue of finances, but everybody doesn’t believe that; they believe it was different motivations to not allow it. But as long as I’ve been on there, maybe four years, we’ve worked to facilitate this happening,” Welch said.

If a business owner at the end of Delaware Avenue who soon will receive water for his business park allows residents to hook into his system, Welch said, annexation won’t be necessary.

In addition, Artesian Water has made an offer to buy Frankford’s water system. If approved, it might be easier to connect residents in unincorporated areas to Artesian’s system based on proximity to the company’s supply.

Twenty-two miles away, residents of the Mulberry Knoll community in Lewes are trying to connect to a county water supply in an effort to prevent future contamination.

“You can test it today, and tomorrow it’s contaminated,” said Korie Sandridge, who’s leading the charge in the beach community because she’s concerned about her health and the financial implications of correcting saltwater intrusion, common in beach towns.

No matter its size, a community must obtain 50 petitions from residents to start the process of connecting to public utilities, then hold community meetings and engage in a referendum. If the state claims a public health risk, however, Sussex County could create a water district without a referendum.

Sandridge and other neighborhood advocates are trying to educate the community about private well contamination in order to get a consensus.

Mulberry Knoll is also going through the process to connect to public sewers, now five years in the making. It will likely be another year before the homes are connected, something that was urged because their septic systems are close to their wells.

Resident Lisa Kiracofe called collecting 50 petitions an unfair challenge. During the fight for sewers, for example, consensus was tough to achieve because many residents already spent money to replace old, failed septic systems.

“There are a lot of retirees at the beach and a lot of people on a fixed income. Understandably, their concern is financial. They may put that water need second if there are financial limitations, and thereby possibly impact their health,” Kiracofe said. “People need to understand all the pros and cons and become educated and then make a decision. Try to be better informed before you’re solely influenced by money.”

The greatest obstacle when attempting to connect communities with private wells to a water supply is cost. That’s because it involves working around existing utilities, digging up roadways and driveways, and retrofitting them.

That’s not the case for new housing developments, because pipes can be installed prior to street paving.

It’s why only a handful of communities have been successful connecting to public water, whether it’s through a referendum with the county or by privately approaching a water utility company.

For some residents, it’s cheaper to connect to public water than replace a well, or pay for various water treatments.

Kauffman said the challenge could be resolved with improved planning and management.

“Let’s plan our water systems in a systematic manner with master plans five to 10 years in advance, and have that mapped out and water lines put in before the neighborhoods are built,” he said. “That’s the way it should be done. We see some successes with that. But you are playing catch-up with a lot of the neighborhoods that were built more than a quarter of a century ago without the planning in place.”

Sussex County officials say it can’t afford to prospectively install water lines because it runs on a net zero budget. Keep Our Wells Clean counters that the county shouldn’t approve new developments in areas that don’t have utility plans in place.

But not all Delaware residents wants to give up their wells, especially if they’re not contaminated.

An exterior view of New Hope Road in Ellendale, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

In Ellendale, Rowland Moore Jr. is one of the people who voted against the referendum.

When the town connected to public sewers several years ago, Moore said, officials told residents their water would be safe after forgoing septic systems. So they were blindsided by the referendum, he said.

Moore believes some neighborhoods need public water, but he argued that those who have safe water should not be forced to connect.

“If they had said, ‘As it goes bad, or as you sell your property, it has to hook up to the water,’ it would have been completely different. Or if you build a new house, you have to hook to the new water, that’s not a problem,” Moore said.

His water is safe, he said, but he doesn’t test it. How does he know it’s OK?

“I ain’t dead yet,” Moore said.

Some who live in Ellendale just want to leave.

Tykenaha Gans lives in the mobile home community with her two daughters, including a newborn susceptible to the health risks associated with contaminated water. When she moved there three years ago, Gans said, she was surprised to learn the water in her childhood home hadn’t changed since she was a toddler.

“The biggest inconvenience is when you have a newborn and you have to keep purchasing water so you can preheat it to take care of your toddler. When your kids are a little older, OK, it’s not going to do too much damage to the skin, but when they’re a baby, they’re sensitive,” she said. “So, that means that’s more money coming out of our pocket. Even drinking water, you have to buy bottles of water so you can mix the formula.”

Because she is breastfeeding now, Gans uses about eight to nine bottles of water a day, and goes through about two or three cases a week.

“I guess over time you get used to it being that way, if you plan on staying here permanently. That’s not a plan, staying here permanently. My limit was to stay here four years, to move out — so I have one more year,” she said.

She wants to move to California, so she can pursue opportunities to act and sing, “and there is the best place.”

“I know in Cali the water is beautiful and clean,” Gans said, with a smile on her face.

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