Perhaps 2 weeks before tribal water system safe 6-13-07

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Residents of the Rocky Boy's Reservation likely face another two weeks of hauling water before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifts restrictions imposed when a degreaser mistaken for chlorine was poured into the water system.

Angie Stone daily picks up water in a pair of gallon jugs. To do laundry, she drives 22 miles to Havre.

“It's really tough when you have kids,” Stone said Tuesday.

Most of the reservation has been without water since May 25, four days after a water resource employee accidentally poured between 12 and 14 gallons of degreaser, normally used to unclog the sewer system, into the water supply. The degreaser was in a blue container similar to that holding chlorine that is added to the water.

The mistake was discovered two days later after people started going to the Indian Health Service with complaints of nausea and stomachaches.

On Tuesday, Eric Fink, the chief enforcement officer for EPA in Helena, explained to tribal members what is being done to make sure the water will be safe.

Fink said the kerosene smell EPA employees encountered when they opened up the two water storage tanks where the degreaser was dumped “could knock you over.”

Those tanks, along with two others, were drained, steam cleaned, scrubbed and rinsed.

Next, workers flushed 70 miles of water pipes, and then the pipes leading to homes. The housing service on the reservation flushed water heaters in individual homes.

Fink said the EPA has tested the water system and about 60 homes, and is confident the water is clean.

However, because some people continued to use water during the flushing process, some pipes were empty at times. The reverse pressure could have caused bacteria to seep into the system, Fink said.

More chlorine was injected into the water to treat it for bacteria. Now the tribe is waiting to hear, from the EPA in Denver, whether test results are sufficient to restore water service. The EPA estimated that water restrictions will be lifted by June 29.

“We think we have the situation in hand,” said Tribal Chairman John “Chance” Houle. “The EPA is looking over our shoulder for every move and that's a good thing. We look at this as a wake-up call.”

Roughly 100 people gathered in the Box Elder school gymnasium Tuesday to ask questions and voice concerns. Several complained about having to haul water, or leave their homes to shower.

Sisters Michelle and Martina St. Pierre live in one of the neighborhoods without contaminated water. Daily they take water from home to the Village Grocery, where they work, to make slushies and to wash dishes and their hands.

“Some people are taking a chance and using the water anyway,” Martina St. Pierre said.

Ken Gopher, a tribal elder who started the meeting with a prayer, said the restrictions are a trying reminder of how important water is in daily life.

“When we go to sweats, we pray for the water,” Gopher said. “When we go to Sun Dances, we pray for the water. Water is very sacred to us.”