May 01, 2023

State approves water at Laurel manufactured home park for use, but residents remain wary

Two months after residents of a Laurel-area manufactured home park were told not to use their tap water for cooking, bathing or drinking, Delaware's Office of Drinking Water issued notices declaring that the new well at the park is safe.

But some long-time residents remain wary, arguing that longstanding contamination problems remain unaddressed.

Residents of the Briarwood Manor manufactured home community received notices from management in late March the park's primary well had failed, leaving them briefly without running water. By April, the park switched to a backup well, but management soon warned residents that the new water source contained elevated levels of nitrates, rendering it unsafe for consumption.

For nearly two months, residents of the park relied on daily deliveries of bottled water for their cooking and drinking needs. Meanwhile, the park's management hired contractors to dig an entirely new well, completed earlier this month.

Office of Drinking Water Public Water Systems Supervision Program Manager Kevin Cottman says that his unit conducted limited tests on the new well, focusing on contaminants that pose the most serious health risks.

"We target bacteriological and nitrate contamination – those are the two major ones that are immediate health risks," he said. "That's why we target those two first, so we can get them water back, since they’ve been without water for way longer than they anticipated."

Initial testing detected coliform bacteria in the new well — an indicator of the presence of more serious pathogens — but after the well was treated with chlorine, a subsequent test found the bacteria were no longer present. According to Cottman, tests also did not detect an unhealthy concentration of nitrates in the well.

The Office of Drinking Water notified park residents of their findings on Tuesday in a letter deeming the community's water supply safe for consumption.

The letter was met with skepticism from some residents, who contend that the testing process was rushed and does not provide an accurate picture of the park's water supply.

"There is no way I would drink this water," says three-year park resident Pam Saunders, pouring a glass of water from her bathroom faucet. "It's yellow, it smells, and it looks like it has little worms in it," she says, pointing to small specks in the glass that, upon closer inspection, appear to wriggle.

Cottman says that the water's yellow tint may be the result of elevated concentrations of iron.

"There are no health risks related to iron," he said, "so that would mostly be an aesthetic issue." He adds that his team did not observe any "worms" when taking water samples; the Office of Water Quality has not tested the well for parasites.

Leonard Sears, who has lived in his single-wide at Briarwood Manor for more than 40 years, says the park has long been plagued by water quality issues — problems that can't be resolved with the digging of a new well into the same water table.

"There is no good water here," he said. "There are superfund sites in every direction. We've been dealing with this for twenty years, and we've never gotten an honest answer." In 2002, the Delaware Department of Justice sued the park's owners, in large part because of high nitrate concentrations in the community's well.

Sears argues that the two months spent under a do-not-drink advisory was costly for residents.

"All those contaminants are in our pipes, in our faucets, it's polluted your hot water heater," he said. "The bill is going to be quite expensive for the individuals here!"

Other residents say they spent the past two months making trips to relatives' homes as far away as Georgetown to take showers, driving up their monthly transportation expenses.

Both Sears and Saunders argue residents are owed compensation — or, at very least, reprieve from lot rent increases.

But in the long term, Sears contends that the only way to ensure a resolution to Briarwood Manor's water crisis is to connect the park to Laurel's municipal water supply — an expensive undertaking, and one that would likely require substantial capacity and filtration upgrades.

Connecting manufactured home parks to municipal water and sewer infrastructure is not a novel concept in Delaware: last year, the Donovan Smith manufactured home community began the process of incorporating into Lewes after a series of septic system failures.

KDM Development, the New York-based real estate company that owns both Donovan Smith and Briarwood Manor — along with several other Sussex County manufactured home communities with chronic water and septic system problems — did not respond to a request for comment.

The end of the do-not-drink order may, however, enable KDM to end its daily deliveries of bottled water to park residents.

Meanwhile, neither the park's management nor the Office of Drinking Water have issued any notices in Spanish, though a substantial portion of the community's nearly 300 residents are primarily Spanish-speaking. Typically, the translation of notices is the responsibility of residence management, according to Cottman.