The Town of Jackson in rural Washington County is approaching an anniversary its residents would rather forget.
Last July 17th, a fuel pipeline ruptured, sending more than 54,000 gallons of gasoline cascading onto a farm field.
A meeting is set for tonight; town leaders hope to move the community toward a solution.
Working farms still fill much of the rolling landscape in Jackson.
Ray Heidtke was born and raised here; he lives in the farmhouse his grandfather built. However, since the pipeline ruptured......
“Life is not normal any more,” Heidtke says.
At last count, 39 wells contain varying levels of benzene. Bottled water has become a staple. Heidtke says some residents have taken the situation in stride; others are devastated. He says his own daughter falls into the latter category – shattered, even though she lives outside the spill zone.
“She will not drink that water and she has my granddaughter so confused, saying ‘this is gas water; you can’t drink it’,” Heidtke says.
Heidtke has the unenviable task of trying to sooth both his daughter – and all of Jackson. He’s town chair.
Heidtke and other leaders have been exploring residents’ options for tapping into clean water. The team cast aside the idea of creating a high capacity well and sanitary district. Instead, leaders want to plug households in the affected area into the Village of Jackson’s existing water system.
Tonight, Heidtke hopes to hear from TOWN residents.
Jeff Smith plans to be there.
“We’ve been regulars at all the meetings since all of this has started; and hopefully something gets settled so something can start moving forward,” Smith says.
Smith says 35 years ago, he and his wife fell in love with 10 acres. The couple built a home, raised a family. Eventually his wife started breeding and boarding horses.
The parcel is nestled below the spill site.
“I can still hear my dad saying, well the first thing you do is you go to the neighbors and you find out about the water. and if it’s got good water, you’ve got a good piece; and for 34 years we thoroughly enjoyed it; and now we’ll never have the water back,” Smith says.
Right after the spill, the family well did not show signs of contamination.
“Then mid January we started to climb. We had one test that was like a 7 or 8 and then the next one was 200 and then the next was 400 and so it’s been above ever since,” Smith says.
Smith shows me a marshy area across the road – it’s part of the clean up. The pipeline company pumps water out of the ground at the spill site, runs it through filters and then discharges it in the marsh. From there, it’s left to seep back into the aquifer.
The Smiths have their own benzene removal system at home. The family’s well water is pumped through multiple filters, and then it’s supposed to be OK.
However, a few days before I arrived, Smith told me his water pressure dropped to a trickle. He suspected sediment might be clogging his filter. He removes it to show me the culprit - gasoline-smelling slime.
“So this is what we’re talking about; and the whole filter and every one of the veins has that slimy, bacteria, or whatever they want to call it, growing on it,” Smith says.
Smith was waiting for a plumber to inspect the findings.
He says last spring he begrudgingly joined a lawsuit against the pipeline company but wishes it could have been avoided.
“Take care of the people. Take care of the people that have been affected and that are damaged by it, that’s all,” Smith says.
I called Patrick Hodgins – he’s the go-to person at the West Shore Pipe Line Company. It owns the line that carries fuel from Chicago to Green Bay. The company hired crews to clean the water. It also removed the contaminated soil and replaced it. And the company has purchased property in the spill zone.
What does Hodgins think about some residents’ concerns that it has left them holding property with no value?
“I don’t know who you’re referring to, but I can tell you that West Shore has been meeting with residents and has been settling with residents and we continue to do so,” Hodgins says.
Both West Shore Pipe Line and the Wisconsin DNR deem the town’s best long-term solution for reliable drinking water - hooking up to the neighboring village’s system.