Salish Kootenai College Life Sciences Department tests Flathead Reservation wells
By Lailani Upham
SKC Life Sciences student, Marietta Stringer prepares water samples at the Salish Kootenai College lab last summer. (Courtesy photo)
PABLO — In the early days of the reservation, Dixon, a rural town along Highway 200, was a thriving township when the Northern Pacific Railway carved through the area from 1883 to 1886. The village served as a main stop along the rail like a modern day major airport.
By 1909 there was a hotel, mercantile and lumberyard. In the second decade, much of the town burned down, the bank failed, and the hotel and hardware store closed.
Fast forward 107 years. As the story goes, a student at Salish Kootenai College heard claims (which are so far unfounded) that a coal company in Dixon once used arsenic to compound their wood. Recent reports confirmed that some wells in Dixon tested positive for arsenic.
As part of the SKC Department of Life Sciences, professor Jesse Stine said the student project blossomed as funding came from the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. The funding allowed for Reservation-wide testing of 105 samples collected between April and May of 2016, which showed that 95 of samples came back fine.
However, five came back with levels that could raise concerns, and nine others were borderline concerning.
In the world of part-per-billion, safe levels are debatable.
“Anything above 10 ppb is about the EPA’s maximum contaminant limit. Whether it is safe or unsafe is highly debatable and depends on a whole bunch of different factors,” Stine said.
But as a general rule, safe levels are below 5 parts per billion or ppb, which was what showed at most wells tested around the reservation. Nine tested between 5-10 ppb, which are borderline. Five exceeded 10 ppb, which is generally considered concerning. All those samples came from the Dixon area.
“We did find some elevated levels around Dixon but we also found other samples that were not contaminated in the same area so it was hit-or-miss,” said Stine.
Calls were made to the five homes exceeding 10 ppb to answer questions and offer suggested responses. One suggestion was to contact the Montana State University Extension Office Water Quality Program who offered water filtering systems, Stine said.
The project may have started with one student, but it was carried through by a team of SKC students including Marietta Stringer, Amanda Berens, and ShiNaasha Pete, and one high school student, Payton Dupuis.
The team offered free water testing to homes where wells were used. “The students were involved in every aspect of this project. They helped create and design the posters that announced the project. They then responded to calls and emails to arrange sample times, collected the samples and performed the analysis,” said Stine.
Their work revealed that the source of pollution is still in question. The student team learned that the coal company used a non-arsenic chemical in the wood compound. The company then contracted to clean up the defunct post-and-pole site used pentachlorophenol as a chemical treatment and was not a source of arsenic contamination, Stine said.
Arsenic can be found in areas where there was or is volcanic activity or natural underground hot springs. A Hot Springs well showed high arsenic levels, said Stine; however, another well a mile away was found to have safe arsenic levels.
Some homes may be exposed to high arsenic concentrations and more tests should be done.
Funding is being sought for further follow up studies to be conducted this summer, Stine said.
“Our goal would be increase the number of houses tested and hopefully a pattern or zone of increased risk could be identified,” he said.
The upcoming project will be announced via flyers, ads, and informing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council headquarters for testing sign ups.
For more information on future testing contact Jesse Stine, SKC Department of Life Sciences at (406) 275-4849, or email at email@example.com.