Homeowners continue to voice concerns over Brandon water issues, council member gets on board

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BRANDON, S.D. (KSFY) - After months of growing concerns from Brandon residents about water supply and quality, one City Council member says he's learned a lot about water and is ready to fight for city residents.

"I will never not respond to a phone call or an email," Council member Don Wells said. "That's just very important to me. Whether it's water issues or not, that's just an important issue to me ... to be and stay in constant contact with the public."

Wells said it wasn't too long ago that he didn't think the city had any sort of water issues, especially not water quality, but recently, his opinion has changed.

"Two months ago I would've told you, 'Hey, our water quality is OK, we pass all of the tests,'" Wells said. "And that is true, we do pass our tests, but just to say that it is 'OK,' maybe isn't good enough."

Those concerns are something homeowner Tim Wakefield, Jr. has been telling the council about for months.

"To me, there's two different pieces to this," Wakefield said. "There's being informed and then there's being educated."

Wakefield believes most of the council members are only being informed and not educated on the water issues. Wells said he's done a lot of his own research to get informed.

"I've been in touch with some of the state agencies and we've -- through our water committee meetings -- and council meetings and meetings I've had outside of those meetings -- my education of our water system has grown exponentially," Wells said.

Wakefield's major concern is still about the radium levels in the city's water system. In tests conducted of Well No. 6 back in 2015, the well that accounts for 90 percent of the city's total water according to a 2013 study by Stockwell Engineers, shows the combined Radium of the treated water is around 3 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) which is under the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) limit of 5 pCi/L, but the raw water is around 7 pCi/L. The City of Brandon is currently only required to test for Radium every three years.

A test of the proposed Well No. 8 this past April, which would be put into service to replace Well No. 6, shows the Gross Alpha -- a measurement of radioactivity from Radium and Uranium -- of the raw water is contaminated upwards of 20 pCi/L.

An HMO (hydro manganese oxide) was recently implemented into the city's water system to help remove Radium from the water, but Wakefield said that still poses significant issues.

"Basically, you inject a chemical into the water stream and the Radium grabs onto that chemical and now it's big enough that our filters can catch it," Wakefield said.

The HMO is a blend of manganese and iron. The city's most recent tests show those levels are above EPA standards but are secondary standards. Wakefield said the bigger concern is where the particles are going after they're caught on the filter.

"The problem is that our filters are gonna fill up faster and that radioactive Radium is being flushed down the drain toward Sioux Falls," Wakefield said. "I've spoke [sic] with the Public Works Director of Sioux Falls and they've given us unconditional support to help Brandon move forward."

Another issue many residents are concerned with is the city's reluctance to involve engineering firms other than its contracted firm, Stockwell Engineers. Wakefield and Wells both agree that needs to change and that Requests for Qualification (RFQ) should be asked for from multiple firms.

"You think of it as interviewing an engineering firm," Wakefield said. "We put out an RFQ and we say, 'These are the topics we want covered, why are you qualified? What brainstorming ideas do you have?' and they just move forward with that."

"I believe it's a good idea to open those projects to an open bidding process and take the most qualified engineering firm for the job," Wells said.

"There's been no second opinion or peer review done of any of Stockwell's plans for the last 10 years," Jess Elofson said. "And now the City Council is asking us to trust an engineering firm whose plans have put us in this position."

Just outside of city limit's, Elofson's family was assured by city leaders that no further plans for a new water tower on a property adjacent to theirs would be completed until the water committee makes its recommendations. The Elofsons and several other families fought the purchase in court for months, voicing concerns over a water tower slated to hold 1.5 million gallons of water.

After several residents pointed out issues with the purchase agreement, including missing signatures on an amendment, as well as a date that would've caused the agreement to expire, now, there's a closing date for the land purchase.

"Brandon is attempting to purchase one acre of land for $60,000 dollars from a former city employee and now we finally got it out of them that they did not do a land appraisal for this purchase," Elofson said. "Now the closing date is Dec. 15."

While many residents, including Elofson, are glad Wells is now working on their team, some say other council members need to start listening to their constituents.

"I'm very optimistic with the new approach I've heard from Councilman Wells and the [water] committee seems to be going in the right direction," Elofson said. "But the council doesn't seem to be willing to listen to any of that."

And they'll need to act fast ...

"There are the rumors going around that there's more than one way to clean out a City Council and you don't have to wait until the next election," Elofson said.

Wells said the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), a state hydrologist and geologist, will all present at upcoming water committee meetings in December.

While only committee members can vote and make recommendations, the meetings are open to the public. Wells said public comment and questions are encouraged.

This month's meetings fall on Tuesday, Dec. 12 and 19 at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers.