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Water woes in Polk County community, solution is unclear

From News 12: Some Polk County residents say they have not received a new water line after being promised one.   Isabella Water Problems

From News 12: Some Polk County residents say they have not received a new water line after being promised one.


Isabella Water Problems

Isabella is an unincorporated community just east of Ducktown near the Tennessee-North Carolina border.


Richard Stevens and his family have owned a property in Isabella for over 15 years along the rural Stansbury Mountain Road.


He says during that time, they have never been connected to a water line.


Stevens said, “We are unable to cook, wash our bodies, hair and stuff, with this water. We spend about $140 dollars a month on water to cook with, and to drink.”


For neighbors like Tom Dickinson, it puts them in an impossible position in maintaining their wells.


Dickinson said, “The supplier fellow came out a couple of times on his own, and he finally told me that he called every manufacturer he had and once he said Copperhill they said, “Forget it.””


Historically, this area known as the Copper Basin was known for its copper mines, and residents believe nearby tailings ponds which contain many of the elements leftover from those mines, are carrying residue and contaminating their water supply.


Both Dickinson and Stevens have had their water tested by water quality experts.


At both properties, the concentration of iron and manganese was far above the level accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


Only 0.3 parts per million (ppm) of iron and 0.05 ppm of manganese are allowed in a water supply by the EPA.


If water contains more than this amount of iron and manganese, than the water can stain plumbing fixtures and clothes.


Additionally, they also are dealing with their water being considered hard, as anything over 3.5 grams per gallon (gpg) wastes soap, clogs hot water heaters and pipes.


Stevens’ results were:

  • Iron: 11.34 ppm
  • Manganese: 0.88 ppm
  • Calculated Hardness: 28.2 gpg

Stevens showed us his bathroom, and how his toilet, sink, and shower are all corroded due to the presence of these elements in his water.


He added that he has to completely replace the apparatus of his shower at least twice a year.


He also demonstrated the difference between water just filled into mason jars versus water that sat overnight for 12 hours.


Stevens said, “This is our hot water, if you notice it is still dingy. That is because of the hot water and the iron. This is after our water has sit out for 12 hours. It has sediments in the bottom. This is what we have to deal with”


Things were similar for Dickinson, as his results were as follows:

  • Iron: 11.8 ppm
  • Manganese: 6.6 ppm
  • Calculated Harness: 77.75 gpg

Additionally, Stevens shared pictures from an unnamed neighbor that shows a creek on their property being completely brown, which has destroyed one of their pipes after they saw their water foaming.


Utility and Polk County Response

The nearest utility company to Isabella is the Copper Basin Utility District.


A representative for Copper Basin Utility District told us over the phone that they only service about 1,100 customers in Ducktown, Turtletown, and provide water to Copperhill.


They said that they have a water line that goes partially into Isabella, but not all the way up Stansbury Mountain Road.


They said for a new water line to be created, a new booster station and storage tank would have to be built first before a new water line was construction.

While they say they would love to service Stevens and his neighbors, they claim inflation has made the project more expensive.


They also said because the area in question along Stansbury Mountain Road would only have about 15 new customers, it is difficult to justify an extensive project without outside help.


Stevens said, “We’ve been fighting the Copper Basin Utilities about getting water run out here since 2009.”


We took the resident’s concerns to Polk County Executive Robby Hatcher, who appoints the Board of Directors for the Copper Basin Utility District, but says he does not have control over their decisions to state law prohibiting county government from directly controlling utility companies.


He says that both the county and utility company were planning on using American Rescue Plan dollars (ARPA) , as highlighted in a request form shared with us by Hatcher.

However, he says the funding, which was approved in 2021, has not been released to the utility companies by the state of Tennessee.


Hatcher said of a recent utility board meeting he attended, “The board members, they’d ask as well, where’s our ARPA money at?”


The estimated project cost was five million dollars according to that request form.


Copper Basin Utility District had requested $2.8 million and were to match $2.2 million.


However, the state only approved $1.3 million in funding for the Isabella project, which is a third of all funds to be sent to Polk County, and limited the scope of the project.

According to Hatcher, that money would go straight to the utility companies and not be controlled by Polk County, and the companies would have to match 15% of their total grant to be fully accepted.


In the case of Copper Basin, 15% of the approved $1.3 million is roughly $200,000, but still far off from the project project cost of five million dollars.


Additionally, the state, after requiring the utility companies to conduct “sanitation surveys”, they prohibited the ARPA funds from being used for an extension of the Copper Basin Utility District’s water lines, as the state argued that Copper Basin produced enough water to handle the situation in Isabella already according to Hatcher.


Hatcher explained that what they thought was going to be unlimited uses for upgrades turned into, “They’re going to make it to where the utility districts have to work on a lot more of what they already have, and not do it on the existing lines in, which in the first stages of this, water line extensions, sewer line extensions, all the way around.”


Hatcher added he would be frustrated if he was in the shoes of the residents and said that the state government needs to figure out how to get the funding out, especially as it affects rural areas like Polk County.

He said, “This money was turned loose to go back to help all of them.”


The Isabella residents hope their water woes turn around soon.


Stevens said, “We want to be able to have good safe drinking water not just for us but for other people.”


Hatcher mentioned that they have been in contact with the Southeast Tennessee Development District, headquartered in Chattanooga, about when that money would be released.


We have reached out to the Southeast Tennessee Development District for comment but have yet to hear back.