This article was originally published by The Daily Mining Gazette.
People throughout Houghton County are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, but a small group of residents are now coping with all of those troubles without running water in their homes. They point the finger at the Houghton County Road Commission for cutting off their water supply with no warning, but HCRC says they did nothing wrong.
Like many roads in Copper Country, Cole’s Creek Road was heavily damaged by the 2018 Father’s Day Flood. Water rushed down the road toward the Portage Canal, and peeled up pavement and sediment.
Repair funding was approved by FEMA, and until this year, the HCRC had a temporary dirt road built.
When the contracting company started to undercut the road in preparation for the permanent repairs, they ran afoul of the waterline feeding several homes, including those of Chris Woodry, Sheila Peltier and Cale Lyttinen.
“It was leaking, and flooding the sub-grade of the road,” HCRC Engineer Kevin Harju said.
Harju said that normally, a leaking pipe would be the responsibility of the owners, who would have to contract a repair before road work continued, but Harju said nobody claimed ownership of the pipeline.
The residents say the line belonged to them as a group, as part of a contract with the previous well owner. However, they have been unable to find a copy of that contract. They say they are willing to take responsibility for the line, but Harju said nobody had come forward.
In the meanwhile, the contractor made some temporary patches to the line.
“They (the contractors) spent a solid couple days trying to fix that line,” Harju said.
Eventually, they grew tired of shouldering the expense of repair to a pipeline they had no responsibility for, and took out several hundred feet, according to Harju.
“But the road commission did not instruct them to remove the line,”he said.
The line is fed by an old spring-fed artesian well on private property uphill from the homes the line feeds. Harju said he has met with the residents before and discussed the likelihood of the waterline being a problem because of its old and shallow construction, and them needing to find other arrangements, but the residents said they thought they would have much more time.
“You have to give us warning,” Peltier, a 30-year resident in her home, said. “We can’t even wash our hands.”
On Tuesday, they were told water would be shut off temporarily for more repairs, but the water never came back on. Instead, they received a letter from the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.
The letter stated that the well feeding the line was not suitable as a public water supply, and that the age and construction of the well meant it could not be brought into code. It advised them not to drink the water, and to obtain drinking water from another, safe source.
It said the owner of the well intended to abandon it. Harju said it was because WUPHD informed him he was responsible for testing for bacteria not only in the well, but also the lines to the homes, which was a responsibility he did not want.
Lyttinen said he has had the water tested several times since he moved into his home in March of 2018. He said the only times it came back unsafe was immediately following the Father’s Day Flood.
Tanya Rule, Director of Environmental Health at WUPHD, said they did a test of the water on Sept. 14 when the visual inspection of the well was done.
“It’s just not suitable for drinking water purposes,” she said.
She also said that by law, plumbing in a home has to meet potable, drinking water standards.
WUPHD provided the homeowners with places that might help provide them with wells for new water, including the Portage Health Foundation, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region. The residents said they have contacted those people and more, and so far they have had “no joy.” They have not gotten help securing bottled water, let alone new wells, the cost of which can be highly variable, depending on the necessary depth.
“We don’t know if it’s going to be a $5,000 well or a $20,000 well,”Peltier said.
Woodry said some of his neighbors have not even recovered from the Father’s Day Flood yet, still working on repurchasing ruined appliances.
And even if they had the money ready, the well-digging contractors they have contacted have said it would be weeks before they can get there to drill.
In the meantime, the residents are using bottled water and the generosity of friends and family to get by. Woodry’s girlfriend, who also lives in his home, works as a nurse with potential COVID-19 cases, and now has to do laundry and clean-up at her grandmother’s house. Lyttinen’s wife is a school teacher, so cleanliness to combat coronavirus is of the utmost importance, but made difficult by a lack of fresh water.
Harju said the HCRC has worked with at least one property owner to put a deep conduit under the road, in case a pipeline was to be established between two of the properties there he owns. Other than that, he expects the road to be finished and the project complete in about a week.
“No rules have been broken and we’re just proceeding with the project,” Harju said.
The contracting company involved did not immediately return a request for comment.