By Susan Gallagher,
The Times News, © 2000

August 26, 2000

Life isn’t fair. It’s a lesson we learn at an early age, and one we are rarely allowed to forget as adults. If the Universe were an equitable place, then the most ardent conservationists would be the last to suffer the ill effects of man’s disregard for his environment. But no, life isn’t fair. Pollution problems make no concessions for those who cherish clean air, water and soil. Such are my thoughts as I make the trip to Northampton County to visit two of my dearest friends; Hope Anwyll and Tom Nelson are the directors of Pennsylvania Raptor and Wildlife Association. This is a non-profit, wildlife education facility based out of their picturesque, 150-year-old home, just off Route 611 in Mount Bethel. Hope and Tom have opened this home to thousands of school students, who over the years have visited to marvel at the dozens of animals (known here as “wildlife ambassadors”) lovingly housed on six sprawling acres. Situated atop a hill amid thick laurels and towering hemlocks, this place has its own rhythm. Guests are received by howls, chirps, hoots and whistlers as the “ambassadors,” which include foxes, wolves, hawks, owls, eagles, and coyote, announce an arrival. The place is alive. I am greeted as such, as I pull up the long narrow driveway and park near the old barn which doubles as a classroom. I’ve been here a hundred times, to volunteer or just to visit. But today is different. Today I’m here for one very special purpose.

Today I want to learn what it’s like to live with polluted well water. I want to understand well enough to write about it in a “this-could-happen-to-you” sort of way. I want these two friends of mine to tell me their story, and they have agreed.

As always, the couple is there to meet me. Hope is a wisp of a woman. She is tiny, but intense. There’s an urgency in her voice and in her magnetic brown eyes whenever she speaks about wildlife or the environment. It’s like talking to an electron. Tom is reserved, more quiet, but with a quick mind and a matter-of-fact approach to life; less like an electron, more like a steel beam. We make our way to the ancient stone porch that surrounds the house and sip iced teas, as I listen to what Hope calls “not an exciting, but a common story.”

In the summer of 1997, the couple had opened their home to a troubled but likable teenager named Howie, who was the first to notice something amiss. “Eeeew, this water smells funny!”, Hope recalls Howie’s objection to the well water flowing from the tap. She noticed it too, remembering, “It smelled like acetone.” The water, originating from a well 360 feet deep, had last been tested in 1989. Hope refers to a file of papers, records kept on the well water before and during the contamination. “At that time, aside from some slightly elevated iron levels, this was regular Pennsylvania water, with minuscule amounts of contaminants. In 1989 we tested for heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Everything met the EPA’s chemical standards for domestic use. So we decided to test again.”

The couple began by contacting the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), for a list of laboratories licensed to test for VOCs. they followed the procedure for submitting samples, and were told by a local lab that “everything was OK,” recalls Anwyll in disbelief. “We knew we had a problem, so we went to Benchmark Analytic. That’s when we got the bad news.”

“There were things in our water they couldn’t even identify,” adds Nelson. “Benzene was way up. Other chemicals too with carcinogenic properties. The big debate was whether or not it had to do with gasoline. We couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone.”

Anwyll continues to thumb through the file. It’s thicker than any home well water file ought to be. “We had xylene, toluene, dichlorobenzene, 3-methoxypentane. That last one had the experts stumped. No one knew where it could have possibly come from. Can you imagine? These people are the experts! They did tell us not to bathe in the water, that these chemicals were absorbed through the skin. We panicked. We drank nothing but bottled water.”

Seeing an opportunity, the pair hope to increase awareness with newspaper articles describing the problem. “It seemed like no one cared,” recalls Nelson. “No one except the Tobyhanna Army Depot. they brought us a water buffalo so the animals could have water. That thing sat in our backyard all summer long.”

Representatives from the EPA turned the problem over to the state for investigation. Six test wells and many weeks later, there were still no answers. “We were told, ‘hey, you don’t know, maybe something spilled out of a truck going down (Route) 611,'” says Nelson.

“There’s frustration too,” he adds. “Years ago one of the proximal industries was fined over $30,000 for dumping toluene and benzene, yet their facility near us got a waiver and doesn’t have to test for VOCs. How does a convicted polluter get a waiver like that? The plant was pushed through by local politicians who promised it would bring jobs and no new taxes. Four years later the plant moves out and what are we left with? When jobs and the economy are more important, it’s far better for you (the individual) to be inconvenienced than big businesses.”

Arguably, Anwyll and Nelson have been more than inconvenienced. The long list of pollutants found in their water in 1997 include known carcinogens, and chemicals with known or suspect toxicity to human reproductive, respiratory, renal, digestive, developmental, cardiovascular, immune, neurological and sensory systems. Benzene is one of the most hazardous compounds to ecosystems and human health. Sadly, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation in release of Benzene compounds, polluting air and water with roughly 300,000 pounds annually.

“The worst part is the anxiety, not knowing what will happen to you in 20 years,” admits 30-something Nelson. “Taking a shower and not knowing what you’re breathing in. It makes you appreciate how essential clean water is to life.”

“The grass roots issue is human population,” offers Anwyll. “You’ve heard ‘The solution to pollution is dilution?’ Well, it’s true in a way. Ten cavemen urinating in a stream is nothing, but there’s 49,000 gallons (of wastewater) a day coming from a housing development near here which discharges into the Allegheny Creek.” “How many of our grandparents do you think drank bottled water?” asks Nelson. “They would think that was ridiculous. But it’s become insidious. It’s almost as if people expect that’s what will happen. And the home filtering systems you can buy cost a fortune,” he continues. “It’s like everyone fixates on a cure or a quick fix. What about the cause of it all? Think about all the kids you know with asthma, or people with cancer. Why focus on a cure? Why not on the cause?”

“Look,” interrupts Anwyll, “when jobs are at stake everything else goes out the window. If we predicate our economy on growth instead of quality of life, we set ourselves up for a fall. We shall die by the sword we carry at our sides, which is the almighty dollar.”

I glance at my half finished glass of tea. The ice cubes shift as they continue to melt. “So how’s your water now?” I ask. “We had it tested again this year,” responds Nelson. “It tested OK. Everything must have been gradually flushed out. The truth is, once things get underground, no one has any idea where they go.”

“You know the Aztecs were wiped out by drinking the same water in which they excreted,” says Anwyll. “If we haven’t learned our lesson by now …,” her voice trails off, but in my mind I finish the thought: When will we learn? What will it take? Our threesome doesn’t have all the answers, but hopefully we, like many others who value safe drinking water, are beginning to ask the right questions.