A city of Elkhorn water utility employee is facing felony charges in connection with 2018 incidents when water from a city well repeatedly tested positive for dangerous levels of arsenic.
Elkhorn City Administrator James Heilman said Thursday that the problem was corrected at the time and the city’s water, which is tested regularly, remains safe.
“We dealt with this three years ago and kept everyone informed of the situation at the time,” Heilman said, adding that this is “an old story.”
Christopher J. Robers is charged with second-degree reckless endangerment and misconduct in office/failing to perform known duty, both as a party to a crime. The Gazette could find no mention of anyone else being charged.
District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld could not be reached for comment immediately.
Robers, 52, of 306 E. Geneva St., Elkhorn, remains a city employee, Heilman said. Heilman would not comment further on the case.
The case is in its infancy. Robers’ first court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 4.
The criminal complaint is based on Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reports about Elkhorn Waterworks and Robers’ role as the certified operator of City Well 9.
Well 9 started operating in January 2018 and soon tested positive for dangerous levels of arsenic, but the DNR was not informed, according to the criminal complaint.
The DNR had agreed to the use of Well 9 if the city would add ferric chloride to the water to reduce arsenic levels. Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and bedrock throughout Wisconsin.
“Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water is known to increase risks of skin, bladder, lung, liver, colon and kidney cancer” and a variety of other ailments, the complaint states.
Wisconsin administrative code allows arsenic levels of no higher than 10 parts per billion. The cancer risk nearly doubles when the level rises from 10 ppb to 20 ppb, according to the complaint.
Two samples of the well’s water from October 2018 showed levels of 20 ppb and 17 ppb, which appears to be when the DNR found out about the problem and when the city started adding ferric chloride.
The utility posted a notice on its Facebook page on Feb. 4, 2019, telling residents about the arsenic tests the previous October and assuring them the water was safe.
“This is not an immediate risk. If it had been, you would have been notified immediately,” the message states.
The next day, the utility posted another Facebook message that questioned a DNR notice to residents about the situation, saying the October tests were “not representative” of Well 9.
“The WDNR Area Engineer specifically ordered our operators to take (the) samples in question knowing the arsenic removal treatment was not operating,” the notice said. “Since the results of this testing were reported, the WDNR needs to be transparent with the information and let it follow the regulatory process in the Wisconsin Administrative Code, even though it is not representative of the facility.”
The DNR held an enforcement conference with city officials on Feb. 25, 2019, which is when the officials told a DNR investigative warden supervisor that the water utility had tested the water earlier but did not report the results to the DNR, according to the complaint.
The samples in January and July of 2018 showed levels of 20 ppb and 14 ppb, respectively.
The DNR investigator reported that Doug Snyder, an engineer hired by the city, stated during the conference that ferric chloride could not be added to the water during that time because of contractors working at the facility and that the volume of water being delivered to customers was “intermittent,” according to the complaint.
A DNR water specialist told the investigator it was misleading to say the Well 9 system was intermittent when meter data showed the well was producing nearly 300,000 gallons per day, according to the complaint.
Snyder later told the investigator that there was nothing about construction at Well 9 that would have kept Robers from adding ferric chloride, but Snyder said he covered for the city during the enforcement conference, which is why he made misleading statements, according to the complaint.
Snyder could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Snyder also told the investigator that he gave Robers specific instructions for adding ferric chloride and told Robers to run the system using the chemical and take water samples after one week of operation to see what the results were, according to the complaint.
Robers told the warden he knew that Well 9 tested high for arsenic before it went online and that Snyder had told Robers to hold off adding ferric chloride because the arsenic levels would naturally go down.
Robers said Snyder told him and John Murphy, the city utilities operations director, that the arsenic levels were acceptable because they were still in a “start-up phase,” according to the complaint.
Murphy told The Gazette he is legally bound not to comment on the case.
Robers said he ordered ferric chloride after seeing the January 2018 arsenic results but he said it took a long time for Murphy to buy the chemicals, which arrived in March 2018, according to the complaint.
The ferric chloride was not used in Well 9 until after a DNR inspection in October 2018, Robers told the investigator.