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Montana middle school girl discovers arsenic in city well water

Posted at 7:53 PM, Mar 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-06 22:48:30-05

THREE FORKS – Water samples in Three Forks have confirmed the presence of arsenic in one of the city’s water wells.

That prompted the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Gallatin City-County Health Department to take action.

The samples taken from one of four wells tested in Three Forks indicated levels to be roughly six times higher than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) set by the EPA.

The other three wells were well-below the MCL.

This all started in a middle school classroom and with the idea of a seventh-grade girl.

“Kind of a coincidence. I really didn’t think it would go this far,” says Three Forks seventh-grader Ericka Johnson, of her ambitious science fair project.

“It was kind of a last-minute decision to do water quality,” Johnson says. “We were looking on the computers and just saw a water project and I said well, I can do water quality because my aunt’s a chemist in Butte.”

With her aunt’s help, Ericka says they tested the water at her house and her school.

They found something odd.

“We first wanted to test the conductivity, the pH, the nitrate and then the arsenic so we read off the data and it said arsenic was 70 micrograms per liter and the high is only supposed to be 10,” Johnson says.

“The Montana Department of Environmental Quality says there is no need to seek an alternative source of water supply at this time, so that’s good news,” says Lori Christensen, Environmental Health Director at the GCCHD.

Christensen says the city moved quickly to shut down the well, finding levels to be at 67 parts per billion, over six times higher than where it should be.

“The City of Three Forks took immediate steps to keep that well isolated and allow only the wells that were in the City of Three Forks on a different aquifer to serve the community until they figured out exactly what the issue is,” Christensen says.

The Health Department says they test and check that water frequently to make sure that these levels stay on the up-and-up as is water is important to us. But if you have a private well, there is another way that you can check to make sure that your water is safe.

“If you are in a private well, then you are your own operator of that private well so you should be testing your water minimally every five years for all analytes, including arsenic, and then once per year for bacteria nitrates,” Christensen said.

“This is a great example of the quality of the work that our students do,” Three Forks Mayor Steven Hamilton said. “It’s the quality of the teaching that her science teacher has worked with her and instilled with her and all of our students.”

“I learned that there was a lot of tests for water, even more than what we tested for,” Johnson says.

Again, the Health Department says there is no need for bottled water and there are no signs of immediate risk to the public.

The department adds that if you are concerned at all, you should talk to your health provider.

As for Ericka, she plans on being a veterinarian or an architect after school and not a chemist.

Cody Boyer reporting for MTN News