Five months ago Monday, a gasoline pipeline ruptured outside of West Bend and turned life in a small nearby community upside down.
More than 50,000 gallons spilled onto a farm field in the Town of Jackson, seeped underground and contaminated wells.
As the town grapples with finding a long-term solution to their water problem, WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited a couple anxiously hoping for light at the end of the tunnel.
Driving through Jackson's snow-flecked fields, the area appears serene. The Bishops live just east of a stately white-spired church German Lutherans erected in the 1840s.
Marcy Bishop says their farmhouse isn’t much "younger." "Up above where the logs are by the windows, the two builders had written their names in pencil and then the kitchen part was added in 1888," Marcy says.
Outside, next to the brilliant red barn, Bishop introduces me to "the boys." "The black ones are Angus; there are several that have sort of a dusky white, they’re a cross between the Angus and the Charley," Marcy says. The Bishops raise beef cattle – the high-end type.
A packing company in Illinois snatches up most of it. "They cater to the kosher market in New York and they also send to your higher end Chicago restaurant. The most of the cattle go there; we do sell some privately," Marcy says.
The Bishops, with occasional help from a nephew, till more than 500 acres – selling its corn and soybean crops.
Marcy says the lean team is accustomed to coping with unexpected weather – such as this year's drought, but the couple has not yet been able to reckon with the July gas leak.
Marcy and Ross Bishop just purchased this farm two years ago. "We're just starting out; so yeah, if you want to know, we got debt a lot of debt," Ross says.
The Bishop's plan was to sell their old house - just a half mile from here – and then put that money toward this venture.
Ross says, six months ago, a local realtor couldn’t wait to list the place. "And she said I'd love to sell it for you – that was in June. What we found out after the spill, not one realtor would touch us, nobody would sign up to sell it," Ross says.
Bishop's old house lays just 1,000 feet from the spill. We drove to see it. "The red brick, that’s the house, but the spill was right behind that garage," Ross says.
The pipeline company installed water filtration systems for all property owners whose wells were contaminated.
We head to the basement where a couple of four-foot tanks gleam. "They put in a filter to take any big stuff out, and then we have a meter and two carbon filters and those are supposed to get all the benzene; but at some cases where it was really heavy levels; we've been talking to one of our neighbors, within a week it had filled up complete with benzene so they had to switch them out – put new ones in. They cost $700 a piece," Ross says.
Bishop's tank had to be switched out too. Nevertheless, the pipeline company assures Jackson residents, the filtered water is safe to drink.
Ross says try convincing yourself that’s true, let alone a potential buyer. "We've had people that would like to buy it that have kids and a baby, a one year old. And the wife says, no way. The husband loved the house and he told me later on that he couldn’t convince his wife and I said, she’s right, you don’t want a one year old here," Ross says.
As for their "new" farm, its well tests "clean," although it still falls within the DNR's "drinking water advisory area."
"So we're right on the edge," Ross says. For weeks, the pipeline company delivered bottled water for the couple’s consumption. To hydrate the cattle, a semi rolled onto the farm twice a week and filled 15,000-gallon tanks. The situation left one of Bishop's regular customers feeling unsettled - resulting in a canceled order.
In the meantime, the Bishop's worries multiply. When they took cattle to market, they learned his cattle weighed less than most, Ross says, by as much as 100 pounds per animal.
"The USDA says they’re up by two percent across the nation, so it has to be the chlorinated water. I talked to our nutritionist and he said dairy animals do not do well on chlorinated water; their daily gain or their milk production will go down. So here we are with beef cattle; it all makes sense," Ross says. That weight makes a difference in terms of dollars and cents too. Ross figures he’ll lose thousands, taking lighter weight cattle to market.
Driving back to check on the herd, he wearily gazes across the rolling landscape. I ask, what keeps him going "My faith; I pray, I get on my knees and ask the Lord for wisdom. You don’t really know what to do or to say, because we’ve never gone through this before. This is a whole new animal," Ross says.