Former Elkhorn employee allegedly failed to treat water for arsenic

By Vicky Wedig

Correspondent

An initial appearance is scheduled for Oct. 4 for a former city employee who allegedly allowed unsafe levels of arsenic in an Elkhorn well.

Christopher J. Robers, 53, of Elkhorn, was charged Sept. 14 in Walworth County Circuit Court with misconduct in office and second-degree recklessly endangering safety, both as a party to a crime.

According to the criminal complaint, unsafe levels of arsenic went untreated in Elkhorn’s Well No. 9, which distributes 300,000 gallons of water to city residents daily.

Robers, who had been employed by the city since 1991, was the certified operator of the well and had been involved with it since it started up in January 2018, according to the complaint.

Two samples were taken from the well in October 2018 that showed the water contained 20 and 17 micrograms per liter of arsenic respectively, according to the complaint.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, arsenic occurs naturally in soil and bedrock and can be released into the groundwater and enter wells. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water increases the risk of skin, bladder, lung, liver, colon and kidney cancer and can cause blood vessel damage, high blood pressure, nerve damage, anemia, stomach upset, diabetes and skin changes, according to the complaint.

The cancer risk nearly doubles when the contaminant level increases from 10 micrograms per liter to 20, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The city obtained approved from the Department of Natural Resources in 2016 to operate the well if it injected ferric chloride, which reduces arsenic levels, into the system, according to the complaint.

The DNR learned that Elkhorn Waterworks had tested samples from the well in January and July 2018 that showed arsenic levels of 20 ug/L and 14 ug/L but failed to report the results to the DNR, according to the complaint.

Doug Snyder, an engineer hired by Elkhorn Waterworks, said ferric chloride could not be added to the water during that time because of contractors working at the facility, the complaint states. Snyder later admitted nothing about the construction would have precluded Robers from adding the chemical to the system, and said he made misleading statements because he was covering for the City of Elkhorn, according to the complaint.

Robers said he knew the well tested high for arsenic prior to start-up but said Snyder told him to hold off adding ferric chloride because the arsenic levels would go down naturally, the complaint states. Robers said he knew the water samples taken in January and July 2018 showed high levels of arsenic but said he thought the DNR got the results, according to the complaint. He said Snyder said the levels were acceptable because the well was in a start-up phase, the complaint states.

Robers said he ordered the ferric chloride when arsenic results were still more than 10 ug/L in January 2018, and the chemicals arrived in March 2018, according to the complaint. He said the company that installed the chemical feeding equipment provided instructions on how to use it, but the training was “all kind of a joke,” the complaint states. He said the containers of ferric chloride sat unused in the well facility until October 2018 when the city began treating the water after a DNR inspection.

Snyder said he gave Robers specific instructions for adding ferric chloride before the well started up, according to the complaint.

 
 

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