Salt piles on contractors land source of well pollution

Excavation company agrees to settlement

(Published October. 18, 2006, 3:38 p.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

The state Attorney General's office and R.W. Miller & Sons, a Lyons-based road builder and quarry operator, reached a settlement last week Thursday in a groundwater contamination case.

The 2-year-old lawsuit alleged the company, located just outside Lake Geneva at 2604 Highway 120, failed to properly handle stockpiled road salt on its grounds. The salt, according to the suit, seeped into the ground and contaminated neighboring drinking water wells, rendering them virtually useless.

Two neighboring homes and two nearby businesses were left with non-hazardous but unpalatable water, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Dosch.

The suit also alleged the company failed to monitor and make yearly reports to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on area groundwater quality as required by pollution control permits the company signed in 2000.

Company attorney Jim Bartzen declined to comment specifically about the case or the settlement.

R.W. Miller & Sons agreed to pay for the replacement of neighbors' wells, abandon two wells on its own property to speed the restoration of clean groundwater in the area, and pay a $40,000 fine for violating pollution control permits, according to the Attorney General's office.

"It wasn't a life-threatening situation but these people deserved clean water," Dosch said. "It wasn't their fault."

Walworth County stockpiled salt at R.W. Miller & Sons for use as an ice-controlling agent on county roads and highways. The county built a salt storage shed on the company's property some 20 years ago.

R.W. Miller & Sons would mix some of that own salt with sand and sell it to other companies or municipalities, said Kevin Shurilla, a drinking water and groundwater specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Walworth County was listed as a third-party defendant in the case. However, the state could not seek damages from the county because it was not the property owner, Dosch said.

"It may be that others had other responsibility here, but not one where we could seek penalties," Dosch said.

Walworth County Administrator David Bretl did not return a phone call seeking comment before press time. The Milwaukee attorney representing the county referred The Janesville Gazette to Bretl's office.

R.W. Miller & Sons is attempting to have the county contribute to the settlement costs, Dosch said.

"We have ongoing settlement negotiations and discussions (with the county)," Bartzen said. "We hope the case can be resolved."

Jeff Miller, president of R.W. Miller & Sons, could not be reached for comment.

Salt storage and mixing operations at the site ended in 2002, several years after neighbors first complained of poor-tasting well water.

The owner of one of the two businesses in the area-an archery store and a beauty salon-declined to comment about his water situation.

Another homeowner in the area did not return a request for comment.

In a deposition, Jeff Miller reported the company had bad-tasting well water since the 1960s, Dosch said.

The neighbors had the same problems, Dosch said. The beauty salon, Retreat 120, had bottled water trucked in for consumption and salon use. Other neighbors reported drinking only bottled water.

Some of the residents reported pipes corroding and bursting, Shurilla said. Others had problems with appliances, including washing machines, corroding and clogging, Dosch said.

Shurilla was the first to test the water in 1999.

He found the primary contaminant was chloride, one of the chemicals in salt.

The highest acceptable chloride level in water is 250 milligrams per liter. Some of the water Shurilla sampled had levels exceeding 2,000 milligrams per liter.

"It was essentially on a power of 10 times more than what's considered contaminated," he said.

No other areas were affected because of the flow of groundwater, Shurilla said. Samples taken in other nearby homes and businesses had acceptable chloride levels.

There is no simple solution to removing salt from groundwater supplies.

"The expectation is that eventually the groundwater will flush itself out," Shurilla said. "That's at least what we hope."

As part of the settlement, R.W. Miller & Sons will pay for new wells for the affected neighbors. The new wells will be deeper and tap into an aquifer that's below a layer of bedrock, Shurilla said.

"We're hopeful that the agreement to replace these peoples' wells will result in them having a usable water supply," he said.

 

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