Kathy Sweeney Investigates: The Cardwell Solution

Kathy Sweeney Investigates:  The Cardwell Solution
By: Kathy Sweeney
CARDWELL, Mo. - It's been more than three years since the Missouri Department of Natural Resources began investigating the water both above and below ground in Cardwell.  A town of 792, Cardwell sits at the lowest point in the state, just miles from the Arkansas border in Dunklin County. 

What has happened in this small Heartland town has led to big changes in DNR. 

First, the agency had to admit making big mistakes when Cardwell's new water system went in back in the late 1990's.  (Agency members knew some water lines were being laid in petroleum-contaminated soil, yet no one stopped the project and ordered the site cleaned up).  Now, DNR is learning how to handle a clean up like Cardwell.  Investigator Ron Sheeley tells me that knowledge will be needed down the line.
"We're going to have similar situations all over these little, rural communities," Sheeley said.  "This is not an isolated incident here.  So, what we learn here will greatly help us in similar situations."
I've learned an overwhelming amount about contaminated soil, PVC pipe, petroleum permeation, and how DNR works in the three years I've followed this story.  But, this is more than just a story about contaminated soil.  It's really a study in human nature, and a battle between very good people about what is right for their town and what is right for each one of them.
On my most recent visit just a few weeks ago, I met new Cardwell Mayor John Prince.  In the past, I've had a tough time talking to city leaders, so I didn't call Prince ahead of time.  To my surprise, a quick call from the road got me Mayor Prince at DNR's new testing site, ready to talk. 
"I really appreciate their efforts," Prince told me of DNR.  "The biggest concern is the soil contamination our pipes have been running through.  We want to get all that taken care of and cleaned and resolved."
I was also pleasantly surprised to talk with water commissioner Charlie Smith.  Smith had just taken the job when I came down for my first big report a year ago.  He was nice and helpful, but did not grant us an interview.  The second time we came down, Smith did not speak with us at all.  Now, here he is, standing side by side with his new boss.
"Actually, I signed on to help and I was going to be a part time helper.  But, as you can see, I wound up being the man of the hour.  I think (things are) going quite well.  We've got DNR down here to try and help us resolve these issues.  As far as moving lines or replacing lines, whatever it takes to get it done and get these issues resolved so we can move forward," Smith said.
This newfound city cooperation did not go unnoticed by DNR, or by former Alderman Greg McGrew.  DNR credits McGrew's persistence with bringing investigators down in the first place.  His efforts have led to the Cardwell Solution: DNR will require water lines laying in "grossly contaminated soil" to be replaced and the soil removed. 
You'd think McGrew would be pleased with this, and he is.  His argument is with the term "grossly contaminated" and the plan to replace only 20 feet of water line. 
"In my opinion, if it's showing contamination, then it (a water line) really doesn't need to be in that contaminated soil," McGrew told me.  "I think when you look at the cost of completely moving the line out of it (contaminated soil) compared to human health, it's not even a question of what should be done".
That's where the new administration still differs with the opinion of McGrew and others who live on Cardwell's southeast side.  He believes the soil and groundwater contamination did get into the water system and led to his health problems.  Water commissioner Charlie Smith disagrees with this so much, he told me so for about three minutes of our six minute interview.
"I would like proof," Smith said, raising his voice.  "If someone has it, that if you've drank this water and it's made you sick, then I'd like a medical doctor's proof!"
More proof of ground contamination comes before we leave town.  Ron Sheeley's crew make several soil borings 16 feet into the ground.  Right in front of Tina Taylor's house, he leans over the hole and smells gasoline.  Taylor and her family watch from the front porch.
"I just hope if there's contamination, they find it and fix it, so our kids can play safe and we don't have to worry about the water no more," Taylor said.
DNR expects to finish its work in Cardwell by the end of the year.  Shifrin and Associates, the company hired by responsible party Larry Brewer, will be in charge of replacing that water line and removing the "grossly contaminated" soil.  Then, DNR will host a town meeting in early 2008 to answer any other questions from residents in Cardwell.  The agency will also turn over all its documentation on Cardwell to the Missouri Department of Health.  At that point, Greg McGrew and others may get their health concerns addressed.  Will Cardwell's water problems finally be fixed?  We'll keep following the story and let you know.