LAWRENCEVILLE, Pa. (WETM) – Every time Diana Lewis turns on the taps in her home, the color and smell of the water worries her and fills her with dread.
“My water was brown, my water shouldn’t be brown,” says Lewis. “You can smell chlorine so bad that it burns your nose. That’s not normal…I refuse to drink Lawrenceville water.”
A high-profile water crisis has been brewing in this small 600-person borough of Lawrenceville, Pa., where many residents refuse to drink the water.
They say sticks or tree branches are being used to repair the holes in their water facility, leaving the water contaminated. Some residents say they can detect a strong smell of chlorine, while the taps of other households spew out water that is brown.
Their fears are not unfounded. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a notice of violation to the borough for plugging a bullet hole in the water storage tank with a tree branch.
“When you plug a hole in a water tower you have to have approval from DEP for the materials that you use… and a stick with epoxy is not one of them,” said Lewis.
The violation notice issued on August 25 specifically cited Borough Council President Gordon Chilson for “improper repair” and a failure to use proper materials, certified by the DEP.
However, Chilson, who is in charge of the water facility seemed unfazed. He said in a council meeting on Tuesday: “Every time that tank has been repaired, the guy…took a stick and put it in the hole.” Video of the meeting was provided to 18 News by IonU Media.
One outraged resident yelled out during the meeting, “This is my water! This is the water that we’re drinking!”
The plight of residents is an echo of the water crisis playing out thousands of miles away in Jackson, Mississippi, which has been under a boil-water notice for over a month. There too, poor maintenance and broken pumps at the city’s main water plant have left many in the capital city of 150,000 without clean tap water.
Lawrenceville too has faced boil-water notices within the past year and similar negligence of maintenance even though it affects one of the basic necessities of life: drinking water.
Footage from a local resident on Wednesday shows the stick that had served as a plug since the end of June, being replaced with a fresh stick. “No more leak!” exclaimed the man once he was done re-plugging the hole, which shot out water horizontally when there was no stick to hold it in.
The DEP’s notice of violation said that the hole was “sealed with an unknown epoxy/resin-like material.”
However, in the video, the man says there is no epoxy sealing the hole. One resident also said the discoloration around the leak is nothing more than rust and corrosion.
This small town in rural Pennsylvania has already caught the attention of the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency, which is investigating its water facility for violations. The town could also face fines from the DEP.
But instead of answers, residents say Chilson deflects their questions by reciting the same phrases.
“His number one go-to is, ‘well that’s your opinion’… ‘[that’s] not on the agenda’… or ‘show me proof,'” Lewis said, listing them off. “We could print out one thousand pages of material with proof and it would still be our opinion…It’s his way of getting around everything.”
Frustration is also growing now with the state environmental agency which hasn’t done much other than issue violation notices in the past three years.
“We’ve had violation, after violation, month, after month, after month…They need to do something so we can drink our water again,” said Lewis.
For residents, this has been tough.
“I won’t drink it at all. Now I don’t even give it to my animals, I have to give them all bottled water…I’m really aggravated, because, I mean, we’re trying to just get answers,” said Lawrenceville resident, Eddie Wetzel.
Chilson has been contacted multiple times by 18 News for an interview or comment on the situation and so far he has refused to accommodate our request.
When asked for comment on Chilson’s insistence that past leaks have been patched the same way and his denial of the use of any epoxy, the DEP referred 18 News back to the August 25 notice of violation.