Only half of eligible residents taking county water, but Ambrose says, ‘can you put a price on somebody’s health?’
Monroe County is trying to finish delivering county water to Juliette residents around Plant Scherer but a surprising number, more than half, are not participating, choosing instead to keep their well water.
So far 422 out of 852 potential customers in the $18.5 million Juliette water project have committed to receiving county water, according to Monroe County public information officer Richard Dumas. That means the county has spent a whopping $43,800 for every home it is adding in the project.
It all started in January 2020 when the website Grist published a long article by Max Blau about health problems, including cancer incidences, among residents around Plant Scherer. Soon thereafter the Altamaha Riverkeepers swept into town and organized a series of community meetings and did well tests in the area. Some wells tested for high levels of hexavalent chromium, a potentially cancer-causing carcinogen. There’s been debate about whether the contamination was from Plant Scherer’s ash ponds, or naturally occurring in the granite fall line that juts underground in the area. Commissioners debated hiring a Duke University professor who said his testing could determine whether the contamination was from Plant Scherer or naturally occurring. Commissioners opted not to hire the professor after he refused to commit to keeping his results private. Commissioners didn’t want them publicized in case they were useful in a potential lawsuit against Georgia Power. Nevertheless, under pressure, Monroe County commissioners agreed to take out the biggest loan in county history, $20 million, most of it to run water lines to the area.
Three years later, the county estimates that 279 homes have been added around Plant Scherer. Another 143 residents have paid the tap on fee but are waiting to receive their water service. But 445 residents have apparently decided not to take advantage of the county’s discounted $500 tap-on fee and sign up.
Commissioner John Ambrose said he thinks more residents will be taking county water as they progress. He said commissioners had no choice but to do the project.
“It’s the best move we made — to help those people,” said Ambrose.
Some have cited the expense of running pipe from the county source at the road to their home as the reason more people are not taking advantage of county water. But Ambrose said as contractors keep adding water lines down side streets, he thinks more and more will tap on. Ambrose -- who said he thinks the well contamination is naturally occurring, and not from Plant Scherer — said the project is expensive but will ensure residents have safe drinking water.
“Can you put a price on somebody’s health?” asked Ambrose.
Gini Seitz of Woodland Way had to watch her daughter go through childhood cancer and has organized against Plant Scherer. She said she has paid her tap-on fee and is just waiting to get her meter to begin enjoying county water.
“I’m very thankful to have it,” said Seitz. Seitz also has a lawsuit against Georgia Power claiming that Plant Scherer contaminated her well and caused her family’s serious health issues. She noted that another nearby neighbor’s child has also recently been diagnosed with childhood cancer. Seitz said she’s hopeful that a true cancer study will be done in Monroe County to determine what is going on.
“I am 100 percent certain that Georgia Power is responsible for my daughter’s sickness,” said Seitz.
Not all residents who are taking the county water have such serious family health issues, but they too say they’re thankful for the service. Craig Craddock of Jenkins Road said having county water increases the value of his home and has also saved him on his homeowners insurance. Craddock, who owns two Chick-fil-A franchises in Macon, said his home is pretty far from the road so he had to spend $3,000 to extend pipe to his home. But he said having county water lowered his ISO insurance rating from Class 10 to Class 7, cutting 40 percent off his insurance bill.
“It gives us redundancy,” said Craddock, who still uses his well to water the grass. “It’s a no brainer.”
Pam Wolfe of Juliette Road said she has paid her tap-on fee but is still waiting on a meter from the county.
“I will be happy once it gets here,” said Wolfe.
She said her well tested very high for hexavalent chromium and so she’s been drinking and brushing her teeth with only bottled water for 8 years.
Monroe County taxpayers will be paying for the Juliette water project for a while. The biggest payment on the bonds so far, for $1.4 million, is due later this year. While the county borrowed about $14 million to do the water project, it also secured $6 million in grants that don’t have to be repaid.