$1 million later: Who is to blame for unsafe drinking water at a local elementary school?

A local school went five years without safe drinking water after the state found high nitrate levels in the water at North Vermillion Elementary.

Posted: Nov 29, 2017 6:46 PM
Updated: Nov 30, 2017 7:40 AM

CAYUGA, Ind. (WTHI) – A water crisis that affected students at North Vermillion Elementary for five years is also hitting taxpayers. A nearby agriculture company could be responsible, uncovered by a News 10 investigation.

News 10 studied years of paperwork, dating back to the crisis.



North Vermillion Superintendent Dan Nelson says the elementary saw a spike in nitrate levels in their water in December of 2011. Officials determined the water was unsafe to drink or cook with because nitrate levels exceeded EPA maximum contaminant levels.

The school says they used the same water source, which was a well, for nearly 20 years.

The school used bottled water for drinking and cooking from 2012 to the fall of 2017. According to records, the elementary used around 1,000 gallons of water each month. This temporary solution cost the school $41,000 over the course of five years, according to Nelson.

Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management opened an investigation into what caused the chemical spike. IDEM also forced the school to find a permanent solution to provide safe water to its students.

The school built a new water line that was completed before school started in the fall of 2017. Nelson says between construction costs, supplies, and lawyer and architect fees, the water line cost them $1,077,000.

Nelson says the school is paying Cayuga back over the next 20 years for this expense. The fund that the money will come from is the Capital Project Funds. According to Nelson, these are tax dollars.

To this day, the school still doesn’t know the direct cause of the high nitrate levels.

According to IDEM, who is overseeing the investigation, a nearby agriculture company spilled 350,000 gallons of fertilizer in December of 2011.

This company is Walker Agriculture whose property is next to the elementary school. Records show 5,000 gallons were not fully recovered.

In February of 2012, less than two months later, another spill happened. This time, 192,000 gallons of fertilizer, according to IDEM.

News 10 asked IDEM if the school's sudden water crisis is in any way connected to these spills.

The spokesman wrote, “IDEM believes that the reported data speaks for itself and the nitrate levels observed at the school are directly related to a failure of the fertilizer tanks at the Walker Ag property.”

We reached out to Walker Agriculture. Their attorney tells us the company is not responsible for the school's nitrate levels.

Walker Agriculture hired their own environmental firm, Mundell & Associates, Inc. According to their records, there was a plastic liner that contained the spills. They determined there was not enough time for nitrates to leak onto the school's property.

Todd Janzen, who represents Walker Agriculture, went on to say the elementary school’s drinking water showed an upward nitrate trend before the fertilizer spill in 2012.

Janzen also pointed to droughts leading to nitrate spikes in groundwater in agricultural areas.

He says, “Although it looks suspicious to IDEM, Mundell demonstrated that the spilled fertilizer could not have migrated to the school’s well.” Janzen goes on to explain it would have taken more than five years before the spill could have reached the school’s well.

Walker Agriculture’s consultant believes seasonal factors, such as farming and irrigation activities, are the cause for the school’s nitrate levels in the ground.

News 10 asked IDEM if they agree with these findings. They say, “IDEM does not believe that the nitrate concentrations are significantly influenced by farming activities.”

North Vermillion Elementary says they will continue to look into what caused the high nitrates in the water.

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