All seems to be well in the Sweeting’s Village Subdivision this week, but less than three weeks ago it was literally a nightmare for two families living there.
On July 13, Brendan and Ruth Saunders and their next-door neighbours, Christopher and Tara Claridge, discovered that their wells had been contaminated by someone illegally dumping fuel somewhere on the grounds of the private subdivision on Abaco.
While the Claridges only have one well, the Saunders have a 15 foot and a 30-foot well. The couples complained that the fumes were so bad that they could not use their water for anything.
“Saturday morning I took a shower, and I said to Chris, I feel like I just showered in paint thinner,” Tara lamented. “It was that strong because I had to actually turn off the shower because I could feel my chest like getting really tight. We thought it was just our filter, so he went and changed the filter later on Saturday, and it was still just as bad.”
Christopher and Tara thought that giving the water a second time to run through the new filter would do the trick. Unfortunately, when the couple began rinsing dishes later on that night to load in the dishwasher, the water began to smell like gasoline at that point.
On her Facebook page, a distraught Tara wrote: The smell is so bad, my eyes burn when we turn on the tap, my throat is sore…there is a film on top of the water – obviously oil and gas. We are only using the water now to flush toilets and bottled water for everything else… There is nothing comical or humorous about this – health risk and very dangerous. We cannot bathe in the house, wash dishes, do laundry, wash our hands – nothing. If anyone knows anything about who dumped a large amount of oil/gas in the area please come forward. We WILL get to the bottom of this.
Ruth and Brendan didn’t know what was happening until Sunday morning because they had been away from home. However, when Ruth brushed her teeth, and felt oil on her face after washing it, she knew something was terribly wrong. A tenant in the apartment next door to the two homes had been treated the night before at the government clinic because her skin had become irritated from using the water. However, she left the island a few days after.
The Saunders examined the heater and water softener only to discover that the water they scooped up was black. The water the Claridges acquired had a film on top of it. While the Claridges decided to move their jeep, the Saunders removed their boat from the yard to rule out a likely culprit.
At this point, both families began to speculate that someone had intentionally contaminated their water table.
After speaking with the Water and Sewerage Corporation, the Department of Environmental Health and police officials, Ruth decided to contact Brendan Swaby, president of Sentinel Drilling, to get to the bottom of the problem. She also received feedback from Jeremy Wong of Well Done Drilling Services, and he suggested that she use detergent to break down the fuel.
Wong and Swaby then recommended that they drain the well, so the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Department stepped in. Firefighters Timothy McDonald and Mateo Hicks came to assist, and pumped two thousand gallons of water from the wells.
Tara also spoke to the staff at Friends of the Environment where she was given a few pointers. Unfortunately, the main thing they had ever dealt with was well and septic issues.
Before Swaby’s visit, they contemplated having to dig another well, and were hopeful that the water table had not been entirely compromised because digging another well would have been futile.
In his first analysis of the well, Swaby, a drilling specialist whose company specializes in drilling and rehabilitating wells, discovered fuel oil in the well, and gasoline was his first suspect. To rectify the problem, Swaby had to pump a few thousand gallons of water and fuel oil off to lessen the quantity of the substance in the water.
Then he did a rehabilitation process by sleeving the well with a PVC pipe 10 feet below the water table rather than at the top because fuel oil floats. The well was sealed off with bentonite clay and cement, which seemed to remedy the problem. The secondary well that was used has been abandoned.
While he was pleased with the results, Swaby told them to keep in mind that fuel oil is like a plume meaning it settles in one area and eventually starts to spread wherever the movement of water is like a well source.
“This is not a commonplace problem, but it is not something to be taken lightly,” Swaby emphasized. “The only time I have encountered this problem was where people lived close to gas stations that had leaking tanks, and they had a similar problem. There was not an extremely large amount of fuel in Sweetings Tract. It could have come from illegal dumping, but we were not able to find a source to say exactly where it came from.
“If it had been a large amount of gas, it would have been a situation of epidemic proportions because the entire neighbourhood could have been affected. I have seen other places where folks had to revert to city water because it was so bad.”
Another rehabilitative process, he said, would be to use a sump pump to pump the top of the water table where the fuel oil is to try eradicate as much as possible.
“There was definitely a lot of fuel residue in the pipes in the home. I used a gasification process using chlorination to clean the pipes, and eradicate the fuel residue from the home itself. After a few hours of pumping and heavy chlorination, I was able to remove the residue, and the water seems to be very good,” Swaby said.
Health wise, Swaby said there would have definitely been health effects for the families if they had not addressed the problem and continued to use the water for any prolonged period of time.
He said: “Gasoline will have a detrimental effect – either on your skin or from inhalation. There was a noxious gasoline fume in the water, so my major concern is that it was isolated.”
Meantime, Swaby was convinced that the fuel was contained in the general area, so a container was used to pump water into it. By pumping, it pulled a lot of plume to where they were pumping, and eradicated the fuel oil from the ground instead of leaving it there to spread. He commended the fire department and Jeremy Wong for the use of an old storage fire truck to pump contaminated water into to get rid of fuel already in the aquifer, and for providing a secondary source of potable water for the Saunders’ use.
While the couples knew they would be faced with added expenses, the more pressing need was to have clean water. There was also the fear of what would happen if someone struck a match because of how strong the fumes were.
“Saturday and Sunday night were the worst to the point that I could have the toilet lid closed and I would close out bathroom door, and an hour later I could come back and open that door and the fumes were so strong just from the water settling in the toilet.
“Then I stupidly tried to do a load of towels Saturday morning not even thinking, and when I opened the dryer, they smelled as if they had been soaked in gasoline,” Tara further revealed. “You don’t want to smell the water that’s coming out of [the tap from] my sink; you could sell this to Esso.”
Ruth looked forward to Keith Bishop and a representative from Environmental Health to stop by that week, so that she could have additional proof to file a police report in the event of sabotage, or at the very least, to create awareness.
For 13 years, Ruth said they had never had a problem with their well, and the same had been for the Claridges after five years of living there. Going back to their theory of sabotage, they considered how foolish it was to lash out at one person in the neighbourhood because everyone lives so closely together.
“If you’re mad at one person, you’re not just affecting one person. It’s not like the water table ends on our property line,” Tara commented.
Ruth added: “If you’re dumping fuel, you had no idea of the repercussions or who could have been hurt in the process of dumping fuel. My concern is the loss and the cost of what was done.”
Ruth said that her conversation had been very helpful, with Barrington Murphy, the Abaco manager of the Water and Sewerage Corp., and that he offered to have the water tested as well.
Throughout their ordeal, Ruth discovered that the government had carried out a scope of works for the area, but was not able to afford to give them access to running water. Both couples voiced that they had no problem contributing because several of the residents had contributed to having the roads repaired to save their vehicles.
“We are pushing this issue to raise awareness to all residents of Sweeting’s Village, and to all concerned that this is also the turning point for us to get city water for us,” Ruth noted. “With this issue, we could have automatically turned over to city water. It needs to be decided if this is going to be a private development or a government development.
“If everyone is willing to pull together, this would be a really nice area if we got public water and the roads were paved.”
Tara admitted that she would also like to have both options because water is always needed, and she had been terrified throughout the ordeal because she has a toddler.
The Saunders and Claridges would like to particularly thank Brendan Swaby of Sentinel Drilling, Nassau; Timothy McDonald and Mateo Hicks of the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Dept. for their dedication and assistance; Jeremy Wong for coming to their rescue with clean water; and to their neighbor, Lisa Scott, for assisting Christopher and Tara with clean water as well.
“All is well in Sweeting’s Village for tonight. Thank God for good friends and neighbours. Love you lots!” Tara exclaimed.