Chugiak trailer court has been under state boil water notice since 2018
Plagued by low-water pressure and questions about water quality, residents of the Forest Park trailer court in Chugiak have been struggling with a boil-water alert issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for more than a year.
The notice was issued in May of 2018 after several complaints from residents, said Heather Newman, with DEC’s water testing and drinking water program.
“They do have ongoing pressure issues and that’s why we have not taken down the boil water notice yet,” Newman said in mid-November, when first contacted about the trailer court off the Old Glenn Highway. “They (Forest Park owners) are unable to prove to us that they are able to maintain the pressure on a regular basis.”
The boil-water alert is a preventative measure to guard against harmful bacteria entering residents’ drinking water. Low-pressure systems are particularly vulnerable to potentially harmful bacteria such as coliform entering into the water supply. While no such bacteria has yet been found, Newman said the well’s safety is still not confirmed.
Paul and Valerie Ritz have owned Forest Park since 2005. They say the main problems with the water pressure began soon after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake, when aging pipes burst and had to be repaired.
“We believe all issues have been fixed,” said Valerie Ritz. “We’ve put quite a bit of money to find the problem and correct it — both last winter and just recently.”
Newman, however, said the complaints predate the earthquake and she received “multiple calls” in the spring of 2018. While the earthquake certainly exacerbated the problem, low water has been plaguing the aging trailer court for more than 15 years.
“We have ongoing issues with this particular system,” she said. “There have been several NOVs (Notice of Violation) issued.”
Residents who spoke on the condition that their names not be used confirmed the water pressure issues have been an ongoing source of irritation.
Those NOVs include one in 2000; one in 2006; one in May 2016; and two in 2019 — January and September. Forest Park also received administrative penalties, or fines, in 2017 for not remedying the violations outlined in the May 2016 NOV.
The Ritzes argue that those NOVs are primarily for not having the proper paperwork in order, but Newman said the violations also include the park’s inability to prove that the water pressure problems have been fixed.
Roy Robertson, DEC’s Engineer II who oversees such measures, says there must be 20 psi of pressure at the service connection to be acceptable; in-home measurements require 15 psi. The park has failed at both locations repeatedly, he said.
For her part, Newman said the state is just trying to make sure the water is safe to drink. Water testing is a routine procedure to ensure public health, and when residents call to complain, it is the state’s job to investigate.
“I don’t have a lot of other systems with water pressure problems that don’t get resolved in a timely manner,” she said. “We went out in August because there was a complaint about no water and when we went out, there were sections of the water system that truly did not have any water. We did collect samples from as many trailers that we could. We ended up taking four samples, and all of those samples were satisfactory.”
The low pressure, however, remains a problem, she said.
Monthly samples are taken inside the homes of willing residents, or from a neighboring church also using the same water system. Testing for inorganics, VOCs and other potential problems are taken at the well site, Newman added. Both tests give the DEC a better picture of the overall water quality.
Paul Ritz said testing in households paints an unclear picture of the site’s water-pressure issue. He claims that the water pressure at the wellhead is within acceptable range, and said he uses a gauge to monitor the measurement.
“After that last earthquake, there were some things that broke, and we fixed those,” he said.
However, he added, his responsibility ends at the water hookup; the mobile home owners must ensure their own pipes are in good shape.
“I go out there and look and they have flow issues, and have got water running out,” he said. “Some of those people have pipes that aren’t to code or are leaking.”
Bob Maier, executive director of the Alaska Manufactured Housing Association, confirmed that most mobile home parks rent their space, and tenants must maintain property.
“If you are receiving good water from your provider, but then in your house you have a reading for lead because your faucets are old, is that the provider’s problem? The answer is no,” he said.
That may be true, Newman and Robertson said, but the fact remains that low-pressure problems continue at Forest Park. And the Ritzes cannot, or will not, take the necessary steps to prove that the well they are using has been inspected and approved.
“We have a 2003 as-built survey that said there is an existing well, and they said they would like to connect to it,” Robertson said of the Ritzes’ 2005 request. The state requested that an engineer inspect the well to ensure it meets all requirements and provide a waiver, if needed, before using it.
“He never provided the information,” Robertson said.
Newman said the most recent Notice of Violation, from September 2019, cited the low-pressure sampling results, the lack of engineering approval for the well site, and having a well site without a proper separation distance waiver, which addresses how close the well can be to other water sources.
“We’ve gotten enough complaints about the water pressure that we are not sure what is wrong, but we know there is a problem,” Robertson said. “We just know there is a problem that has not been fixed.”
The Ritzes, however, don’t see it that way.
“The pressure is fine according to all the residents we talk to,” Valerie Ritz said. “When we know that there’s an issue, we address it.”
Melissa DeVaughn is a longtime Alaska journalist and the former editor of the Alaska Star. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor as well as serving as the head track and field coach at Chugiak High. Email her c/o [email protected]