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'It is a public health emergency': Hysham put on water boil advisory after water plant failures

Hysham Town Hall with water tower in background
Posted at 7:25 PM, Jan 06, 2023

HYSHAM — Residents of Hysham are having to boil their water before using it following multiple failures and problems at the town's water treatment plant.

Jessica Anderson, a Hysham resident, told MTN News on Friday that she is fed up with the town's water problems, which have been going on for nearly a year, and the hefty bill that comes with them.

“At times there’s more film in a cup of water than there is in a regular cup of coffee,” Anderson said.

Business owners in Hysham who wanted to remain unidentified told MTN they pay more than what residents do for water and are losing money because they must pay for bottled water and canned sodas on top of monthly water bills.

A water boil advisory was sent out in late December to residents, but Anderson said that is not the first time the town has been placed on an advisory like this.

Anderson shared a photo of water from her tap with MTN that she took in March of 2022—before the first water boil notice.

Hysham water, March 2022
Hysham water, March 2022

Lisa Kaufman is a field services selection supervisor at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. She told MTN on Friday that this water problem is creating a larger health concern for the community.

“It is a public health emergency, and people do need to boil their water before consuming it. Especially those who are immunocompromised,” Kaufman said. “The very old or very young, people who are maybe on chemo or have some other chronic illness that puts their immune system at risk. Take it seriously."

But some residents are still drinking the water regardless of the advisory—like Virgil Akhtenberg.

“I’ve lived here for 50 years, I’ve drank the water for 50 years, I’m still drinking it. There is dirty water in town. But I do know one thing, it’s way too expensive,” Akhtenberg said on Friday. “With the new water tower and all that stuff, it’s high-priced. I’m sure the (water treatment) plant’s getting old, you know. Probably. But can we afford it? That’s the thing."

Kaufman explained the events that led to the boil advisory stem back to the spring of 2022.

“In March they had some issues with their storage tank leaking, and so they had to flush an inordinate amount of water so they could lower the levels of the tank so they could repair the tank. What we think happened then is that the town of Hysham had some discoloration of the water, and we think that was due to flushing through the pipe picking up sediment that was left on the bottom of the pipe," Kaufman said. "We have been in close communication with the town since a routine sanitary inspection was done there in April where we devised a list of priorities, things that needed to be addressed in the water treatment plant so that hopefully we could avoid this boil water advisory."

But the problems didn't end there.

“Hysham on Dec. 18 had a main line break that depressurized their distribution system. So on the 19th, they reported it to us. They were issued a boil water advisory,” Kaufman said. “Through the course of dealing with that, on the 20th, the next day, we discovered that they were also having treatment issues in the treatment plant."

MTN News called Hysham's town office multiple times early Friday seeking comment from city officials. Twice the calls were disconnected, and MTN was connected with Mayor Larry Fink after a third call. Fink declined an interview, beyond saying the city was working with DEQ.

On Friday night, after this story aired, Fink called MTN News and disputed parts of DEQ's description of the water problems. He said the main water line did not break but depressurized because of a malfunction.

Fink added repairs and upgrades to the town's water plant will cost more than a half million dollars and says the town is working with the DEQ on a 90-day plan to fix the problems. A community meeting will be held sometime later this month.

Kaufman explained that the treatment issues discovered on Dec. 20 involved the disinfection and filtration process at the plant, which she said are crucial due to Hysham's water coming from the Yellowstone River.

“Because their source of water is a surface water, it needs to be both filtered and disinfected. The reason surface water has the requirement for both filtration and disinfection is that not all pathogens can be killed by chlorine, which is the disinfection that the town of Hysham uses," Kaufman said. "So you have what we call multiple barriers in that treatment train so that if one thing fails, the next thing can work, if that fails, the next can work. Unfortunately at Hysham’s water treatment plant, all of the stop gaps have failed. So that’s why they’re on a boil water advisory."

Kaufman said the DEQ is assisting the town of Hysham, recommending short- and long-term plans.

“Our thoughts here at DEQ in the short-term, the 90-day window the boil water advisory will likely remain in effect until we can get the system back operational and show that it’s consistently operational," Kaufman said. "And then we have the long-term goals, which are going to include things like expensive upgrades, that sort of thing."

Kaufman said the cost to water users is a major concern. A new water tower was built a few years ago, and the cost has been passed on to the water users.

“The water tower was built more than five years ago, and I do know that it cost them money in forms of loans, so they have to pay those back. And those are usually 20-year notes, so the increase obviously in their debt is passed along to the users, so their water bills go up,” Kaufman said. “There is that fear that people can only pay so much for water, you know, so they have to be cognizant of how much water bills are. And that’s up to the city."

The cost of the water tower has caused residential water bills to rise, according to residents and the DEQ. Residents are still paying monthly for the water they have to boil before drinking.

And while residents wait for expensive repairs to be made, they say they are left feeling ignored by their city's leaders.

While residents wait for repairs to be made, they are forced to continue to boil their water.

But Kaufman said this is a necessity for Hysham residents.

“You need to boil. A boil water advisory is just that, do not consume the water unless it has been boiled first,” Kaufman said.

"You flush your toilet and it looks like all it is is coke in your toilet bowl or coming out of your faucets," Anderson said. "I've started buying bottled water."