By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Hill County Commission on Thursday created a committee to investigate whether a public water system should be created in North Havre.
They decided to create a committee after hearing comments at a meeting of about 25 residents of the unincorporated community north of Havre. Residents said they are concerned that groundwater pollution from railroad operations will contaminate their well water.
"This has been a concern of the commission because of what has been happening on the north side, but we're not pushing this. It has to be self-determined," Commission Chair Pat Conway said at the meeting after four members of the committee were appointed.
The meeting was organized by Commissioner Kathy Bessette and Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp. Bessette said they organized it after a North Havre resident approached her to see what could be done about water pollution there.
The 2000 Census lists the population of North Havre at 1,038.
The commission appointed four North Havre residents who volunteered to be on the committee - Roy Wodarz, Wayne Koepke, and Kelly and Debbie Walker. The four were directed to find an interested North Havre resident to nominate for a fifth position on the committee.
The commission also directed the committee to start organizing the community to investigate creating a public water system.
North Havre resident Ed Spinler said the quality of water - and the concern about it - varies in North Havre. People who live between the river and the railroad tracks tend to be more concerned, he said, because spills of chemicals at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway yard are more likely to contaminate their water, he said.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality estimates that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel spilled or leaked at the railroad yard and seeped into groundwater under North Havre from the 1940s through the 1970s. In 2002, tests by BNSF discovered a new contamination of vinyl chloride, a compound associated with chlorine solvents sometimes used by railroads.
BNSF has worked on remediation of the diesel fuel since the 1980s, and has proposed a remediation plan, yet to be approved by DEQ, for the vinyl chloride. DEQ requires the railway to sample the water in test wells in the community every three months.
Kate Fry of DEQ said today that some wells tested in March registered some contamination, but at levels well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency safe drinking water quality standards. One well, for example, had styrene at 6.6 parts per billion. A level of up to 100 parts per billion is deemed safe to drink by the EPA, she said.
BNSF on July 2 reached an out-of-court settlement with about 80 North Havre residents who had filed a lawsuit over the water contamination. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
Anne Booth of the PhilCo Economic Growth Council in Malta fielded questions and described options for creating or joining a public water system.
Booth said there are several options for creating a water system, but the community would have to create a legal entity first. For instance, the community could incorporate, but that would create additional expense over and above the administration of a water system, she said.
Another option is to create a private corporation or association to administer a water system, but that would prevent the community from applying for public funds available to help with expenses.
A common solution for smaller Montana communities is to form a water district, Booth said. Once it is created, the district can apply for public funds and grants.
Creation and administration of the district must be citizen-driven, she added.
"You handle your own destiny," Booth said.
The organizers of the district would have to propose the boundaries for the district, then submit a petition asking for creation of the district to the County Commission with the signatures of at least 10 percent of the registered voters in the district.
If the commissioners approved the petition, they would hold public meetings to determine how much support exists. If the support is adequate, the commissioners would then order an election on the district.
All registered voters who are property owners or renters in the district could vote in the election. If at least 40 percent voted and the majority approved the district, the Montana secretary of state would authorize the district, Booth said.
A board of directors is required, and Booth recommended voting for the board members at the same time the election on the district is held.
The legal entity created by the community would hire an engineer to study possible water sources and the cost of using those sources, she said.
The studies she has seen typically cost $15,000 to $28,000, Booth said. Community Development Block Grant funds of up to $15,000 are available to pay for the studies. The community is typically required to pay a one-to-one match for the grant, she said.
Once the study is done, the district can apply for grants to help with construction, Booth said.
North Havre would have to build a distribution system to transport the water to houses in the community. North Havre residents now use private wells for their water supply.
Some communities have created a start-up fund by asking for contributions from residents, Booth said. She added that $1,500 would probably be enough to start the process.
Booth said the local expenses could be stretched out over several years as part of the monthly charge for water.
County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said that even if the community decides not to create the district or other public entity, the expense of the study could be paid off gradually through a short-term loan. He said he helped investigate creating a water district at Meadowlark Estates west of Havre, and that is how the community paid for its study after it decided not to proceed with creating a district.
Havre public works director Dave Peterson said an option for the community is to connect to the Havre water system. The people wanting Havre water would have to file a request to be annexed to the city before they could hook into the system, he said.
Kelly Walker asked Peterson if that would require North Havre residents to pay for extensive improvements to their property. There is a perception that additional taxes will be levied to pay for curbs, gutters and sidewalks that the city would require be constructed, he said.
Peterson said the city can't force people to make improvements like sidewalks and gutters unless the residents ask it to. The only time the city can force construction of amenities like that is if someone wants to develop a subdivision, he said.
Walker said a main concern of North Havre residents is also how much creation of a public water system would cost them, and the monthly cost of being in it.
Booth said the exact cost would depend on the action the community decides to take, but that there are costs with any water system.
"It's clean water, it's approved water, but there's a fee to it," she said.
North Havre resident Cindy Otto said there is a perception that well water in North Havre is free when it isn't. By the time she pumps and filters the water so she can drink it, it is expensive, she said.
The commission directed the committee to start working on organizing a possible district over the next couple of weeks.
Booth recommended that the first action the committee take is to draw up boundaries for a possible district.
"I can guarantee that if people don't want to be in there, they'll be at the next meeting," she said.
Kaercher said the interest could go the other way. Once the proposed boundaries for a water district at Meadowlark Estates were drawn, people petitioned to have their property added, he said.