Twenty-one-year-old Kai Movrich has enough to worry about.
On top of working at Contrast Coffee in downtown Ironwood, she owns and is an instructor at a dance studio in town.
She didn’t need her tap water at home to be a problem, too. But she found something gross when she moved into a new house in July.
“Through our faucet in our bathroom, when we turned the spouts on as soon as they turned our water on, we actually had sediment coming through our spouts,” Movrich said. “We’re talking rocks the size of nickels.”
Her frustration isn’t unique.
People on Ironwood’s municipal water system describe their tap water as often oily, brown, and nasty. Pictures on a Facebook group show water the color of coffee coming from faucets in the city.
At Contrast Coffee, the water flowing into the bathroom sometimes looks rusty, almost opaque.
“It almost is like, ‘Oops, someone didn’t flush the toilet,’ and we flush it, and, ‘Oops, nope, that’s just the way it is,’” said Becky Bogaczyk, the coffee shop’s manager.
The shop can’t use that water source to make good coffee, so three years ago, it set up a filtration system in the basement. A plastic line sending filtered water upstairs runs clear. But the line sending city water into the filter is a deep brown.
The discoloration comes from the element manganese, which occurs naturally in aquifers near Ironwood. Manganese is not formally regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which calls it a “nuisance” chemical which can pose issues for “aesthetic considerations” like taste, color, and odor.
But Jim Albert still thinks the manganese levels in Ironwood’s water are not okay.
At his downtown business, called the Cattle Ranch, the lifelong Ironwood resident shows photos of brown water in sinks around town.
“I would say the majority of people don’t drink the water. I would say more people, they use it for bathing and laundry, if it’s acceptable at any given time. But very few people drink that water,” Albert said.
This summer, Albert started Citizens United for Usable Water, a group with a petition and Facebook page with more than 600 members. Albert is working with his friend, Steve Frank, to put pressure on the city.
“In the United States in the 21st century, you should be able to turn on your faucet and get clean tap water out,” Frank said. “I don’t think that’s an outrageous expectation.”
The group complained to the city. Then Albert went even bigger, seeking out Dr. Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech, one of the whistleblowers on the Flint water crisis.
“[Edwards] goes, ‘Do you have any friends that would be willing to take samples?’ I go, ‘We have a whole group of people that would be willing to. They want to find out what’s wrong with their water,’” Albert remembered.
Last week, Edwards got preliminary results from several tests of residential water in Ironwood.
“This water is very unsightly,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s going to cause staining and discoloration of bathtubs. The water is black and brown in color.”
Edwards said water problems are common in communities like Ironwood, which has a population that has been declining for years. Municipal water systems designed for bigger capacities allow sediment like manganese to settle. It then gets stirred up, leading to bad water quality.
“You end up with really crappy, expensive water. What we need to get this fixed is to have more people move back into the city. But who on earth is going to do that?” Edwards said.
In an interview at the Ironwood Memorial Building, City Manager Scott Erickson called the city’s water “good” and “safe,” despite public concerns.
“The manganese has been in the water ever since they probably drilled the wells out in the wellfield that we’re utilizing,” Erickson said. “It’s probably become more acutely aware in the public with the water issues that are out there and concerns over water, and was brought up more significantly with our residents in the last six months.”
In early August, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) directed the city to test for manganese in its six municipal wells.
One came in at 520 parts per billion (ppb). The water from the six wells, when mixed, tested at 280 ppb.
The EPA’s level for a manganese-triggered health advisory is 300 ppb for infants and 1,000 ppb for the general public.
Ironwood shut off the well with the highest manganese concentration and began offering bottled water to families. In early September, after three rounds of testing, the city’s water mix tested significantly better for manganese.
“The city of Ironwood, staff, City Commission, as well as the state folks are as concerned about our water is anybody,” Erickson said. “We’re all users of the system, as are our family members.”
Members of Citizens United for Usable Water admit water clarity has improved somewhat since the first well was turned off, but some homes still have days with nasty water.
A list of 13 actions the city is taking includes better communication when it plans to do a hydrant flushing, which tends to stir up settled manganese.
It’s also now exploring an expensive filtration plant and working with Virginia Tech scientists, including Edwards.
“This is a place that is not enjoying civilization as the rest of us take it for granted,” Edwards said. “There’s no easy answers. There’s no bad people here. We’re going to try to help them deal with this impossible problem.”
While there is no current enforceable federal standard for manganese, that could change. The EPA is gathering data as part of the fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule process and may decide to make it a substance regulated by federal code.