By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Fewer than half the people surveyed about water in North Havre have responded. But the people who did showed enough interest in creating a public water system that a meeting is scheduled to discuss the idea, according to Bear Paw Development Corp.
Bear Paw has been coordinating the survey for a steering committee appointed by the Hill County Commission to determine interest. The meeting, set for Oct. 16, will be used to further gauge public interest, Bear Paw deputy director Annmarie Robinson said.
"We thought that we would have more support south of the river than we did," said North Havre resident Ed Spinler, a member of the steering committee. "If we don't get enough turnout (at the public meeting), we can't see if it's worthwhile pursuing."
Spinler, who lives south of the Milk River, added that if few people come to the meeting, the committee might schedule another meeting next spring to look at the idea again.
Bear Paw had received 117 of 294 surveys mailed out when the results were tabulated last week, a 40 percent return rate. Robinson said Bear Paw had received three more by Tuesday, and the results of any surveys received until the public meeting would be added to the results.
The overall results showed slightly more than half the respondents from the unincorporated community support creating a public water system. When the results are broken down by location, about 65 percent of the respondents who live between the river and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway railroad tracks support a public water system. About 60 percent from north of the river oppose a public water system.
The people between the BNSF tracks and the Milk River have a greater concern because of chemicals that have contaminated the water table in that area, Spinler said.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality estimates that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel that spilled or leaked at the railroad yards in North Havre seeped into the groundwater between the 1940s and 1970s. A new contamination associated with a solvent used by railroads was detected last year.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality said last year that vinyl chloride, a chemical associated with solvents used by railroads, had been detected in the water table below North Havre. Tests of wells in North Havre showed it was not above acceptable levels in the drinking water at that time, DEQ said.
The railroad settled on July 2 with about 80 North Havre residents who had filed a class-action suit against the company in 1998. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
"I kind of think we had such a small return (on the survey) because people are tired, or overwhelmed, by the previous lawsuit," Spinler said.
People might be more interested in looking at a public water system when they have had more time to recover from the drawn-out process of pursuing the lawsuit, he said.
The most common problem reported in the survey, by 71 percent of the people responding, was rusty water. The second-most common, with 52 percent, was bad-smelling water, and stains and bad taste tied for third, with 48 percent saying those were problems.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has worked with DEQ to reduce the contamination by diesel and other chemicals, and is negotiating a cleanup plan for the contamination discovered last year. DEQ requires BNSF to test for contaminants in the area every three months.
The next step to create a public water system would be to hold a petition drive to create a water district. If at least 10 percent of the registered voters who live inside the proposed boundaries of the district signed the petition, public meetings would be held to discuss holding an election to vote on the district.
If an election were held, a majority of at least 40 percent of the registered voters inside the proposed boundaries would have to vote for the district before it could be created.
If a district were created, it could apply for funding, like grants, to help pay for a study to determine the most cost-effective way to supply water.
Some options would be drilling a well for the community, joining the Rocky Boy/Northcentral Montana Regional Water System now in the planning stages, being annexed by the city of Havre and connecting to its water system, or building a water treatment plant to treat water from the Milk River.
The combination of results from people who live north of the river and those living south of it showed that 58 households, 52.3 percent of the responses, were interested in creating a public water system. Of the 117 surveys returned, 53 were opposed to creating a public water system and six surveys didn't respond to the question.
Of the responses from people who live north of the river, 36, or 57 percent, opposed a public water system and 27 supported it.
From south of the river, 31 respondents, 66 percent, supported a public water system and 16 opposed it.
The public meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Holiday Village Shopping Center meeting room.