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Special report: Lead dangers in Mulberry?

Controversy is brewing in Mulberry over a water tower that could be exposing residents to lead. In a special report, News 18 uncovers what is being done to ensure neighbors are safe and how some say they wish the town was more transparent about the issue.

Posted: May 17, 2018 6:46 PM
Updated: May 18, 2018 9:37 AM

MULBERRY, Ind. (WLFI) - Controversy is brewing in Mulberry over a water tower that could be exposing residents to lead. In a special report, News 18 uncovers what is being done to ensure neighbors are safe and how some say they wish the town was more transparent about the issue.

For Chip Stoops, heavy chemicals and toxins are just part of the job at his taxidermy shop in Mulberry. He always takes the right precautions.

However, when it comes to the land around his business, the toxins flaking off the town water tower are out his control.

"I didn't realize that we had problems with the water tank and stuff. It's all new news to me," said Stoops.

The town's water tower was built back in the 1940s. Lately, it's become a controversial topic.

"I know that the paint chips come back from the lab, stating that there was lead material in it," said Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Randy Cooper.

It all started back in January, when cold temperatures caused the water inside the tower to freeze, forcing the structure to expand. The expansion then caused paint chips to start flaking off rapidly.

"Like I said, I've seen some, but you never know where it's coming from," said Stoops.

The paint chips became a concern for one neighbor. He refused to go on camera but said he had a gut feeling that the chips contained lead.

Cooper firmly said the lead paint chips haven't affected the water inside of the tower, as it's coated with an epoxy. 

"I know that the paint was tested by a state lab. I've seen the results of that and it came back positive. That does not mean that the inside is contaminated," said Cooper. "That should not affect any water whatsoever as far as having any lead coming from the paint on the outside."

According to the town's water records, the drinking water is safe. However, the town hasn't performed a lead test on the water since November, which was before the chips started to flake off.

News 18 reached out to IDEM to see if the paint chips that were falling off the water tower were a danger to the town. After News 18's inquiry, IDEM is now sending out an inspector. An IDEM representative said in order for the paint chips to be a hazard, more than 220 pounds of chips would have to be collected in one month.

"I think they should have informed us with some kind of letter," said Stoops.

Town leaders never informed neighbors about the issue.

"Not telling people is allowing imaginations to go crazy," said Michael Edmondson, a resident. "Telling people arms them with information. The more information you have, the better off you're going to be."

So what was the thought behind not telling the town?

"Uh, I don't know if there was any thought about it -- just no," said Town Board Member Jerry Stillings.

Stillings said he felt there was never a need to inform residents.

"It wasn't thought that there was necessity to put out any sort of warning of anything," said Stillings.

Even though the chips haven't affected the water, the Indiana State Department of Health said there are serious health risks if the chips were to be ingested. In an e-mail, ISDH said they encourage parents to make sure their children do not pick up any of the chips around the water tower.

"I wouldn't want my kids running around up here now that I got my kids here in town," said Stoops.

News 18 asked Stillings if he would be willing to put out an announcement about the chips, at least so parents could be aware.

"Yes, in an announcement we would make, we could mention that within the next week or so," said Stillings.

"But at this point, there is no announcement about it?" asked News 18's Alexis Moberger.

"Uh no," said Stillings.

Strong efforts have been made to clean up the chips and stormwater drains have been protected.

"I think Mulberry hides a lot of little things," said Stoops. "I wouldn't necessarily say hiding it. It's just that they leave it out of the public's view. If it's not brought up, it just kind of seems like it just goes away."

Town leaders said the water tower will be drained on June 4 and then inspected on June 5. Cooper said that's when an engineering group will inspect the inside and the town will then test the water for lead. From there, the town will have to sandblast the structure to remove the paint.

The process will be costly and if the town can't receive a grant for the process, water rates could increase.

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