Rural church, DNR debate well water guidelines
SEDALIA—A Sedalia church has run into a problem with its well, and its pastor is wondering how his and other rural churches will be able to comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards currently being enforced by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
Rob Ayers, pastor of Camp Branch Baptist Church, has been in touch with state agencies and legislators seeking relief for his congregation, which has been using its well for about 60 years without incident.
In the spring of this year, representatives of the DNR approached Ayers with a survey designed to determine if facilities come under the US Safe Drinking Water Act guidelines for public water systems.
Subsequently, the DNR did determine that the church’s water was a “transient, non-community public water system” on the basis that it serves 25 people or more 60 days per year. As such, the guidelines are more stringent than those applied to residential wells.
The church hired a professional to inspect its well, and it was determined that surface water was getting inside due to problems with the casing. A homeowner would be allowed to reline the casing; but, since it was classified as a public water system, the church learned that it would be required to cover the old well and dig a new one.
The guidelines also specify that the well be set back 350 feet from cemeteries and septic tanks, both of which are on the church’s three acres. There is no point on the church property that is 350 feet from the cemetery. A variance would allow them to dig the well, but only in the middle of the asphalt parking lot.
Digging a new well will cost this 130-year-old church about $20,000. Alternatively, as long as the water is not contaminated, the church can have its water biologically tested monthly and tested for nitrates annually at a yearly cost of about $100. As long as it tests non-contaminated, the church would be able to use the water
Ayers believes the monthly testing adds an unnecessary burden to smaller churches. He believes quarterly or annual testing would be sufficient.
Floyd Gilzow, deputy department director for policy, DNR, said he clearly understands the situation that pastors are facing. Gilzow was a bi-vocational pastor most of his life, always in rural churches, and he currently is a member of Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City.
He explained that the classification of an entity that provides water for 25 or more people 60 days a year is federal law. The EPA can enforce that law but it contracts with the DNR in Missouri to oversee compliance. In most cases, the EPA requires stricter compliance than the state agency.
The agency has been in ongoing discussions with the EPA over the issue of consumption, with the DNR taking the position that it refers to water to be consumed in the body. The EPA says it can include handwashing.
The DNR has also taken the position in the past that well water doesn’t have to be regulated if bottled water is provided for drinking. The agency has been under pressure from the EPA to reverse that position, and has been for some time.
Gilzow said if he were a pastor, he might consider the bottled water option for a short-term solution but he doesn’t expect it to solve the problem over the long term.
He advises churches, “Under strictest interpretation of law, in order to be in compliance with the law, we’re willing to say do the monthly testing. Send us the result so you don’t have to spend $20,000 on a new well.” Gilzow understands the struggle to pay utility bills and would rather see the money go into ministry.
However, he said, the reality is that a good well can go bad very quickly “and you’ll never know it.” Church water supplies are only used two or three times a week and it’s possible for an E. coli outbreak to get into a holding tank and grow for three or four days, he says.
“Pastors love their people,” Gilzow said. “[E. coli] can be in a level that can cause illness in our people. In many cases it will be gastro-intestinal problems that may not kill anybody but may make people sick. We don’t want to do that.”
Ayers said he understands that the state has a compelling interest to see that public water is safe. He is concerned with unfunded state mandates, lack of grandfather clauses for older established institutions and non-profits, and a lack of funding for grants for small water systems. He said the only course the churches have is legislative, and two representatives he talked with didn’t think that was in the cards.
Gilzow said the department is charged with enforcing the law and they are trying to do it in a common sense way. “Until somebody changes the federal law, there’s not much we can do about that.”