Smelly, gray water plagues residents of Selbyville development


On Delmarva, many people don’t get perfectly distilled water from the tap. But the residents of Shady Grove II in Selbyville are getting the exact opposite of that clean, clear water — a smelly, gray-tinged variety of H2O. And they feel that no one is taking responsibility.

Shady Grove II is located off of Main Street, just south of the Route 54 intersection. It’s a pleasantly-situated neighborhood with three long buildings containing multiple units. But residents of Building III have grown weary of the tap water that reeks of rotten eggs and often leaves an oily residue in bathtubs and on skin.

“This has been going on for a long time, and we’re at our wits’ end. Water is coming in dark gray and stinky,” John Katzenberger said. “You can’t take a bath in it.”

Inside the apartment-sized homes, the smell permeates the air whenever a faucet runs, hot or cold. In a porcelain bowl of tap water, gray sediment eventually settles to the bottom. The smell lightly lingers.

The issue was raised at a June 2012 Selbyville Town Council meeting, when resident Mary Brown (who has since moved out of the community) requested the Town’s assistance. Even then, Town Manager Bob Dickerson said the landlord and the Town had previously come to an impasse on the issue, unable to decide who was responsible for the issue or how to resolve it. For instance, the landlord had suggested that the Town install a water system that Shady Grove could take over after a few months. The idea was rejected.

Some relief came in August 2012. The Town of Selbyville, while asserting the problem didn’t originate in the town water supply, installed a chlorinator to see if that would fix the problem. Chlorine was successful as a disinfectant and improved the water quality, but it was short-lived.

Several months later, the state Office of Drinking Water determined that the chlorinator model was designed for swimming pools, not drinking water, so the device was removed in April, and no one installed a new chlorinator after it was removed this spring.

No discussion ever occurred to determine what would have happened next or who might have taken responsibility for the chlorinator.

“During the time we had the chlorinator, it took care of the problem — the color, the smell, everything,” said resident Linda Force. “Once it was removed … the smell came back, and it has escalated to this gray color.”

“We were happy” with the chlorinator, said property manager Angie Barton. Afterward, she asked Dickerson about a replacement, but he said the Town believed it to be a “courtesy” and, ultimately, the property owner’s responsibility.

“It wasn’t our requirement to help,” Dickerson said.

Landlord says issue is Town’s responsibility

Shady Grove II is low-income housing for senior citizens, funded in part by USDA Rural Development. In Building 3, 11 residents live in 10 units.

Shady Groves I, II and III are owned by Corporation Shelter Management (CSM) of Olney, Md., which is owned by John Seymour. Through CSM, Seymour owns a little more than 1,000 units in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, including some moderate- and low-income housing.

“When we built [Shady Grove], we were required by the Town … to connect to the line where Route 54 breaks off, and … we extended it at considerable expense, so the water would loop in a continuous flow,” Seymour said. “In [Shady Grove II], we ran water in front of three buildings … and looped back into the original loop. … We had good water and no complaints.”

Seymour said the Town has been “good to deal with” for many years, but “unless I drill a well, it’s their responsibility. We pay a fee for the water and should get good water. I am not in a position to provide water.”

For a decade, Seymour said, there was no problem, but suddenly, no one can tell what is causing the problem.

“We’ve tried to do everything possible. The engineers who designed it have no clue,” said Seymour, who currently plans to install a blow-off valve, which would flush water directly from the building.

Barton was advised that Shady Grove would be responsible for water management if they install their own chlorinator.

“I can take it upon myself [to buy equipment] …but it all gets passed onto the tenants,” Seymour said, and the cost of water is included in their rent.

“We are eager to resolve this. We feel it’s the Town’s responsibility,” said Barton. “It’s not even about the expense. It’s about the responsibility. … We don’t want to assume the responsibility of the testing water because we’re not experts in that.”

A chlorinator seems like it might be the answer for Shady Grove II, but no one is raising a hand to provide it.

Just a few days after cleaning the toilet bowl, resident John Katzenberger found orange-brown residue where the water had leaked into the bowl. The toilet back also contained gray water. He said the faucets were dripping gunk when he first moved in.

“It’s horrible — just to take a shower — it’s horrible. You have to buy gallons of water to wash your dishes, brush your teeth. You don’t want to touch it,” said Force. “You’re up to a point, I’m buying paper plates. I don’t want to wash dishes any more.”

Although people have lived with this water for a long time, Katzenberger said the older folks have “just thrown their hands up.”

Resident Irene Esham uses an estimated four or five cases of water (24 bottles per case) monthly. She said she never made a complaint about the water, which she has “seen black.”

“The water’s been tested. They say it’s drinkable. You offer it to them, they wouldn’t drink it,” said Force. “That’s telling me it’s not really OK.”

Ollie Baker has lived at Shady Grove for 13 years. He said the first three years weren’t so bad. The “cold water stayed fine until a couple years ago.”

What’s in the water?

Under Delaware Health and Social Services, the Division of Public Health’s Office of Drinking Water has tested Shady Grove water several times in the past few years.

“We are aware that they have gray water complaints, and we’re not quite sure what is causing that,” said Drinking Water Administrator Ed Hallock, adding that Shady Grove’s location at the end of the water line might contribute. “All the water quality meets all our standards … and the requirements for routine chemical standards.”

Test results of the test done on Monday, July 22, had not been completed last week, but Hallock said the bacteriological systems were “good.” The pH level was measured around 9.0, which is considered basic, like baking soda or detergent, as opposed to acidic, which would be a pH below 7. The samples tested at 8.3 in June.

“The recommended levels for pH is 6.5 to 8.5,” so, Hallock said, the Town of Selbyville was notified.

Chlorine was essentially undetectable, measuring less than a tenth of the State’s recommended 0.30 parts-per-million. Other results mirrored those found back in June. Readings also showed some methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive the Town had been dealing with in its water system, at 3.7 ppb, which below the standard of 10 ppb.

They also found elevated levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), a byproduct of chorine disinfectants.

“The older the water, the more time chlorine has to react, so there’s typically higher numbers [of TTHM] toward the end of distribution lines,” Hallock said.

The rotten egg smell is usually produced by hydrogen sulfide, which is an “aesthetic quality, not a health concern,” Hallock said, so there are no specific standards governing the compound.

A chlorinator is considered the “best available technology” to deal with the problem, which is why Hallock said the pool chlorinator probably helped. Flushing can also help freshen stagnant water.

“We will work with the Town to see if we can get this resolved, get safe, potable drinking water,” Hallock said.

Tests at nearby hydrant show Town-supplied water fairly normal

“Our position is that the water entering the building is good. It meets all standards,” Dickerson said. “Where they tap into our system, we’re responsible to that point. What happens after that point we have little control over.”

Selbyville water flows from the water plant located near town hall. When Shady Grove II was built, an additional loop of pipe was installed from the existing water system. That means the community is located at the end of the line. Incoming water may flow from either direction, depending on which side of town is already using the most water.

End-of-the-line homes often have lower water quality because the water sits in the pipe for the longest time before reaching them and is flushed less often. Selbyville disinfects water with chlorine but has experienced elevated levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), a chlorine disinfection byproduct in the treated water. So the Town doesn’t want to pump too much chlorine into the system.

“In the Town’s jurisdiction, the water meets state requirements,” Dickerson said.

Selbyville tests water at a fire hydrant barely 100 feet from Building III. Selbyville is responsible for water up to that point, Dickerson said. On Friday, July 26, water plant manager Ron Foskey briefly flushed water from the hydrant, which Katzenberger and Barton said helped water quality.

On Monday, July 29, Foskey did a standard water test, starting with the customary five- to 10-minute flush, just to get the top layer off and see what’s in the bulk of the water. The hydrant water had neither a foul odor nor a foul taste. The chlorine residual was 0.24, fairly close to the state’s preferred 0.30. The water seemed fairly normal.

Each day, Selbyville flushes three dead-ends around town. Twice yearly, they do a massive flush of all hydrants to clear the system of stagnant water or rust, running water for 20 to 45 minutes. Barton said this helps, but it’s not feasible in winter because ice forms on the road.

Fixing the problem

With the water provided by the Town appearing in good shape at the hydrant, the mystery of the poor water quality in Building III is that, in the 100 feet separating the hydrant from the kitchen sink, something is apparently removing the chlorine that is supposed to disinfect the tap water.

There doesn’t appear to be a leak, Dickerson said, because there is no excess usage. In fact, he said, there is too little usage at Shady Grove II.

“From May 1 to June 3, that building only used 14,000 gallons. With 10 units in that building, that’s around 46 gallons per day [per unit],” said Dickerson. “They only use one-third of what the average family uses. … The rule of thumb is 300 per day per household.”

Meanwhile, he said, Shady Grove III has a 40-gallon hot-water tank, and “that water’s not moving. … We tell them you’ve got to flush the hot water heater. Sulfides break down in heat, so you run water to flush it all out.”

Dickerson said he has flushed the water at his own home, comparing it to people who flush the stagnation from their pipes after returning from an extended vacation.

Although hot water is more likely to pick up elements when heated, Shady Grove II’s cold water is also smelly and gray. Recently, several hot water heaters were blamed and replaced, but with no improvement. Residents have also tried flushing their faucets. Meanwhile, the hot water only intensifies the smell.

“When this stuff is in your water, there is something seriously wrong,” said Barbara Houston, who lives in Building II, where the water also had a rotten-egg odor on July 29. “I am on a fixed income. I live here and try to keep things as nice as I can. It’s just the idea of the unsanitary thing.”

After six years in Shady Grove II, the original black sediment Houston once saw has disappeared, but the smell remains, and she feels that landlord Seymour “does not care” about the tenants enough to fix the issue.

She also noted that antiquated ironized rods are in the water system. Meanwhile, Dickerson said the Selbyville uses a potassium permanganate just to draw iron out of the town system.

“I will not touch this stuff. I don’t care what anyone says; when there is sulfur in the water, that’s not good for your body,” Houston said.

County Council Member Joan Deaver and, later, Councilman Vance Phillips, have taken an interest in the problem. Phillips said he has been seeking “what, if anything, the County can do to help those folks.” He said he considered a federal pool of money that won’t be available for another year, although he couldn’t speak to Shady Grove II’s eligibility.

“Ultimately, the cost may fall back on the residents of this complex if they want this problem fixed. In the meantime, I will keep looking for resources within the system,” Phillips wrote of the issue. “I would like to help them get a chlorination system. The cost is approximately $250 for installation and $100 per month for maintenance, according to my source at the Housing Department.”

Chlorinators cost approximately $750 to $900, according Hallock.

“These are relatively simple chemical feed pumps, and staff from the Town would be capable of installing and maintaining them,” Hallock wrote.

“We’d just like the water to be taken care of soon as possible,” Force said. “We’ve been sitting here, waiting patiently.”

“We all like it here. It’s quiet and it’s safe,” and the maintenance is relatively good, Katzenberger said. But he said the water problem could push him to move out, because it’s causing problems outside the sphere of basic cleanliness.

“We need something to happen, and we need it to happen soon. They ought to get something decent for the people who live here and then figure out whose fault it is,” Katzenberger said. “You deserve a safe environment. … Without a chlorinator, it’s not a livable situation.”