This story was originally published by The Daily Mining Gazette.
Drinking water sources are divided into several regulatory categories in Michigan, based on the number of people and the number of days per year the system is in service. The regulation of each type of drinking water supply also varies.
Municipality water sources, apartment complexes, and mobile home parks have Type 1 water supplies. They serve at least 25 people or 15 connections, all year.
Type 2 water supplies also serve at least 25 people, but not year-round. This category is also divided into “transient” and “non-transient” supplies. A transient Type 2 water supply would be for something like a campground or resort with a changing set of consumers. A non-transient Type 2 supply might be a school or business that doesn’t operate all year.
Many Michigan homes are served by a “private water supply,” or a well that serves only one home.
The Cole’s Creek Road resident’s water supply fell into the Type 3 category, a catch-all that includes any non-private water supply that serves less than 25 people or 15 connections. The Cole’s Creek Road water supply had about 8 homes connected to it until it was disconnected on Sept. 15.
“Besides initial permitting for construction and final inspection, residential and shared wells (Type 3) with less than 15 service connections are not regulated or monitored after construction,” Tanya Rule said in an email. Rule is the Environmental Health Director at the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, and is responsible for well inspection and permitting.
With no regularly required inspections, any Type 3 water supply constructed before Michigan’s Water Well Construction and Pump Installation Code was established in 1978 may have never been inspected by health officials.
According to a WUPHD memo written Sept. 14 and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Bruce Woodry, WUPHD had no record of the Cole’s Creek water supply before being contacted by the Houghton County Road Commission in regards to the service line leaking in the road’s right-of-way. They then obtained permission from the landowner to inspect the water supply.
The landowner declined to comment for this story.
The memo, written by Rule, describes the well as “an approximately 8-foot by 8-foot concrete crock-style cistern collecting surface water from natural springs flowing out the side of the slope down to Cole’s Creek.”
The memo describes the cistern as collecting surface water from nearby natural springs, a crumbling concrete cover, and flooding nearby on the ground surface.
It concluded “Based on the age, current condition, and construction of the supply, it does not provide a safe and reliable source for drinking water and it is not possible to upgrade it to meet standards.”
The owners of the land where the well is located indicated they did not want to take responsibility for upgrading, replacing, or the continued operation of the well, and WUPHD advised that they contact an attorney about discontinuing service and providing notice to the people who were supplied water, according to the memo. It also noted that four of those residents had already applied or received permits for well construction, and that “Do Not Drink” notices were hand-delivered to the Cole’s Creek Road homes using the water supply.
The residents then received letters from WUPHD, dated Sept. 15, notifying them of the inspection failure and the owner’s intent to abandon the water supply. However, their water service was cut off by a B&B Contracting, working for the Houghton County Road Commission the same day.
A spokesperson for B&B Contracting declined to comment on the record.
According to some of the Cole’s Creek residents, cutting water violated Act 3 of the Michigan Public Service Commission of 1939, “A provider shall not shut off service unless it sends a notice to the customer by first-class mail or personally serves the notice not less than 10 days before the date of the proposed shutoff.”
Kevin Harju, the HCRC engineer, said the line was not removed by their direction, but that the contractor had gone through considerable effort at their own expense to preserve the line before finally removing it.
The residents have acknowledged they knew they would need to move their water supplies to private wells, but many were still in the midst of planning for the $5,000 to $20,000 expense when their water was cut off without even one full day’s notice.
A water sample collected on Sept. 14 was tested and returned to the health department on Sept. 16, positive for coliform bacteria, but negative for E. coli.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, coliform bacteria itself is unlikely to make a person sick, but is used as an indicator that likelihood of harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites is high.