People don’t know who to trust in Alabama’s water crisis
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People don’t know who to trust in Alabama’s water crisis

“I’m not going to drink it,” Billie Mason of Courtland said Wednesday about his county’s public water. “I’m going to abide by what they said, even though I don’t believe what they said.”

Mason was talking about the West Morgan and East Lawrence County Water and Sewer Authority’s recent warning not to drink its water. He spoke while picking up a free case of donated bottled water at a Courtland city park.

Mason’s view was one of a wide range of thoughts and emotions at the park where almost 100 people picked up water on Wednesday. People said they are afraid, frustrated and mad. And some even expressed a kind of dark hope that maybe the water could explain their health problems and what locals say has been “a lot” of sickness in the area in recent years.

Mason said he was “inclined to” believe Gov. Robert Bentley that the water is OK. Monty Brown, also of Courtland, wasn’t.

“I think the governor’s full of crap,” Brown said. “I mean, I have respect for all elected officials, and I try to be respectful, but (the water is) coming from a place where you have to wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to work around it, and then it gets in the water and you’re telling us it’s OK to drink it? I think that’s B.S.”

Lower safe amounts

The water authority warned citizens after the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the acceptable limits for two industrial chemicals that have been found in the groundwater here. A plant on the Tennessee River nearby used those chemicals until 2002, but officials there say they do not believe any remaining residue is harmful in the amounts cited.

Mason said he’s playing it safe.

“I’m going to abide by what they tell me to do in case something else comes up,” Mason said. “I can’t say I went ahead drinking the water. I can say, ‘You told me to stop drinking it, and I quit drinking it.'”

Samuel Billings, 69, was also in the water line, looking out of his car window with tears running down his face and a bandage on one arm where blood had just been drawn.

“It might be part of my condition,” Billings whispered. “No appetite, losing weight. I used to drink nothing but that water.”

Billings is one of those who believe the water’s “been bad for a while, and they’ve just now caught up with it.”

Letting it creep up

“We should have been worried about it all along,” Reeta Gilchrist agreed. “They should have been doing something about it before now, instead of letting it creep up on us.”

“It’s a big mess,” said Jessica Cole of Courtland. “I really don’t want to chance it, to be honest. We don’t know how long it’s been going on. A lot of people have been sick more in the last few years, and here we are going to pay a water bill we can’t even use. They’re even saying don’t take a bath, take quick showers.”

Cole uses water for cooking and, “because we don’t buy much cold drinks,” for making ice tea and Kool Aid for her two kids. The case she picked up “will last about a day, probably.”

What to do when the donated water is gone was a big concern until the Decatur municipal water system announced late Wednesday it would make almost 3 million gallons of clean water available daily to the rural system. But there were still questions about whether that will be enough and how it will be distributed.

Officials in the affected area were frustrated and angry Wednesday.

“We’re in the middle,” Courtland Mayor Clarence Logston said. “The water department says don’t drink the water, and your governor says, hey, it’s good. That puts us right in the middle of it, and I can’t tell my folks to drink it.”

Logston was at the park handing out water. “Helping people,” he said, “that’s what it’s all about.”

A lawyers’ ploy?

Courtland Councilwoman Karen Hitt was there, too, picking up water to deliver to residents who are homebound. She thinks the crisis is “a ploy from the attorneys” suing 3M on behalf of the water authority.

“If they had been concerned about our drinking this water,” Hitt said, “they should have let us know back in October when they filed their lawsuit. It’s awful strange to me they waited eight months before they let us know. May 21 is when they decided to let us know. I think it’s just a lawyers’ ploy to create an uproar of the people.”

Hitt wasn’t the only suspicious person at the park. One city employee who asked not to be named said the timing was curious. The warning not to drink the water came just as school was out for summer, she said, not when schools across the area were full of thirsty kids. Coincidence? She wonders.