The tiny community of Clancy, population 223, seeks around $2.9 million because human septic systems are mixing with some drinking water wells, said Jefferson County Sanitarian Megan Bullock.
The problem appears to be coming from multiple sources — animal waste and naturally occurring nitrates were also part of the problem in some of the wells, according to a study conducted by Montana Tech last year. But human septic systems failing on tiny lots jammed together is the greatest concern, according to the report.
Clancy is an old mining town and many homes were built quite close together, Bullock said. Septic lines and water lines were, in some cases, built quite close together.
Lori Gilliland, Clancy Water and Sewer District board member, said all the homeowners whose wells tested to have elevated nitrates last year were notified. She said many homeowners in the community have installed reverse osmosis systems, which is a form of filtration that removes impurities from the water. But a reverse osmosis system uses additional water, she said.
Gilliland called it a “band-aid.”
“It’s what most of us are doing right now, but it doesn’t fix the problem,” she said.
The Montana Tech report recommended the tiny town should build a centralized water system, which is what the Clancy Water and Sewer District is seeking to create. The scientists looked at 89 households - and wells - in the town.
This week the Department of Commerce announced it is awarding Jefferson County a $450,000 community development block grant to go toward constructing a new water storage tank, putting in new distribution lines and digging a new well in Clancy.
Bullock said that the $450,000 grant this week brings the community of 89 households up to about $1.54 million in grant money this year from various state and federal sources to build a centralized drinking water system. But that is still not enough. So the Clancy Water and Sewer District will likely apply for a loan from either a state or federal agency to get the additional funds, Bullock said.
Bullock said that'll just be for phase one of the project.
Gilliland said the district will also seek loan forgiveness but said the district will continue to seek grant money and that solving the problem is still just in the conceptual stages. It took three tries for a water and sewer district to form.
Bullock said it’s likely the residents will have to pay back at least some part of a loan, once that is secured. After phase one is complete, the tiny town may need to find more funding to build extensions to serve lines, Bullock said.
Montana Tech Professor Raja Nagisetty and Tech student Matt Strozewski completed the Montana Tech study in 2018. They found that 47% of Clancy’s drinking water wells tested had more than 2 milligrams per liter of nitrates and 18% tested exceeded 10 milligrams per liter, which is the maximum level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Bullock said the county’s environmental health department has been aware that the town faced a septic problem since the early 2000s, but didn’t realize it was impacting the drinking water until the Tech study last year. She said department officials have been working for nearly 20 years to find a solution to the septic system and she vowed she wouldn’t retire until it is resolved.
When the 2018 sampling indicated a couple of wells exceeded recommended limits on nitrates in homes with newborns, Bullock contacted the parents immediately.
Elevated nitrates in the drinking water have the potential to cause a potentially fatal disease called methemoglobinemia, or Blue Baby Syndrome, because the nitrates starve healthy cells of oxygen. Neither child showed symptoms, she said. She encouraged the mothers to switch to bottled water.
The nitrates may also be impairing nearby Prickly Pear and Clancy creeks, according to the report.
The Clancy Water and Sewer District is holding a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23, at the Clancy Public Library to discuss the water problem and the work being done to solve it. Clancy is about 10 miles south of Helena.
Besides the elevated nitrates, some drinking water wells showed elevated uranium in the water. That is a known problem in Jefferson County. Whitehall also has slightly elevated levels of uranium in its drinking water and also received a grant this week from the Department of Commerce to build a water treatment plant. (See related story.)
The Boulder batholith, which is the type of granite found in south-central Montana, carries uranium deposits. Long-term exposure to the metal in drinking water can increase risk of cancer and kidney problems.
According to the Tech report, 37% of Clancy's drinking water wells tested exceeded the EPA standard for uranium of 30 micrograms per liter.