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Orleans starts letter-writing campaign to improve water quality issue

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LAFARGEVILLE — One afternoon, Joey J. Jeffers’s then 9-year-old daughter went to the freezer to get ice cubes for a soda. When she took a sip, she told her dad it tasted “gross.” When he tasted the ice cube, he said it was like “licking a salt block.” This revelation was just a preview to the effects of high levels of salt contamination that had been building up in the groundwater and seeping into his well.

“We had our water tested and it was 550 parts per million sodium; anything over 250 is dangerous,” Mr. Jeffers said. “This is not safe, not the kind of water you want your kids bathing in, and people forget skin is one large organ.”

In an effort to rectify a decadelong problem, Mr. Jeffers and other community members are starting a letter-writing campaign, sending out petitions and encouraging people to attend the Orleans Town Council meeting Feb. 13 at the municipal building.

“We want to get as many people there as we can, really tell their stories about how this water problem has affected them,” Mr. Jeffers said. “Something has to change. This is affecting every part of this town.”

Mr. Jeffers said to see the evidence of the decaying business opportunities, people just have to drive into town.

“The first thing you’ll see is an old bait shop, where minnows couldn’t survive in the water from the owners’ well. There’s a gas station for sale that will probably never sell because what bank is going to give out a loan for it, and an old abandoned hotel that used to have a restaurant and a sub shop,” Mr. Jeffers said. “It’s depressing. If we had good water in this area it could probably open up business opportunity.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said this issue has been ongoing with very little proposed in the way of solutions. Recent programs for water quality improvement projects around the state also haven’t yielded any funding for improving the groundwater.

For more than a decade, the state Department of Transportation has been providing affected property owners with bottled water, but residents say that it is merely a short-term fix.

In 2002, it was determined a salt pile near Carnegie Bay Road was contaminating local wells. The salt pile was then moved to the DOT facility near Interstate 81.

Stephen J. Conaway, owner of Thousand Islands Winery, wrote in a letter to the Times published Jan. 9, “As a veteran, citizen and business owner in New York, I have been betrayed by my government. While serving at Fort Drum, I was deployed after 9/11 to Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star for my service in combat.

“When I returned home, I found the New York Department of Transportation polluting my family’s water supply with sodium chloride from its faulty road salt storage practices at a nearby DOT facility on NYS Route 12. This dangerous health and economic threat is hurting my family and community. My family and other citizens in the town of Orleans bathe and consume the DOT contaminated water on a daily basis.”

Mr. Conaway said he and other community members have sought help from local politicians such as Sen. Ritchie, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, former state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed, former Orleans Town Supervisor Donna J. Chatterton and Orleans Supervisor Kevin C. Rarick, but nothing has been done.

“If we water our garden with our well water, the plants turn white or die. I’ve replaced the pump in my well, several pipes, copper fittings and a lot,” Mr. Jeffers said.

At the winery, potable water has to be trucked in by the DOT to water the crops. A pipe at the guest cabin rented out to visitors at the vineyard burst and flooded the cottage.

“They’ve replaced the ceilings and pipings. It’s cost a lot of time and money to get the place back in order,” Mr. Jeffers said. “I’ve replaced my pump in my well and piping in my house. My neighbors have also had to replace copper and pipes corroded by the salty water.”

Mr. Jeffers said the problem is only getting worse.

“Anyone who does have a salt problem should come to the meeting so public officials can see how many people are directly affected by this problem,” Sen. Ritchie said.

Anyone interested in getting involved can call Mr. Jeffers at 482-9306.

The Orleans supervisor could not be reached and calls to DOT were not returned Friday.

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