Chapter 8

Sacrificing Lowell (excerpt)

LOWELL, INDIANA, is a quiet Midwestern town of 7,900 people nestled in the flat pastoral countryside that lies about an hour’s drive south of Chicago. This is corn and soybean country, marked by tree-lined fencerows and creek beds. Lowell’s quaint downtown stretches for just a few blocks, with old brick buildings that contain storefront shops with names like “Midtown Hardware” and “Hawkeye’s Restaurant.” Despite its proximity to Chicago, Lowell is more country than city. It’s a place where strangers politely say hello as they pass on the sidewalk, where store clerks seem genuine when they say “Have a nice day.” Some locals commute to jobs in Chicago; others work in the steel mills just up the road in Gary, but the backbone of the town’s culture remains agriculture. “Lowell is a farming community,” says David Gard, the gregarious president of the town council. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds. We’re rural, but we’re on the fringe of the big city.”

Throughout its recent history, however, Lowell has been haunted by one thing: water woes. For years its main problem was that its water stunk, literally. A high hydrogen sulfide content gave the water an essence of rotten eggs. Some people didn’t notice the taste; others got used to it. But there were those who have never been unable to tolerate Lowell’s water, even though things have improved. “I’ve never had any trouble with it, my kids have never had any trouble with it,” Mr. Gard says. “But my wife can’t drink the stuff.”

Lowell’s tolerant residents put up more of a fuss, however, when fly larvae started coming out of the tap. Midge flies are tiny mosquito-like insects that some fish love to eat, but that people are not fond of drinking. In the juvenile or larval stage, midge flies live underwater—usually in ponds, lakes, and streams—before emerging to sprout wings and take flight. But in Lowell the midge fly’s thin quarter-inch larvae seemed to prefer hanging out in toilet tanks on the east side of town.1 Officials assured local residents that the larvae were harmless, but they couldn’t blame people for being disgusted. The problem seemed to be centered in just one of Lowell’s water towers, so workers drained, scrubbed, and blasted the inside of the tower with high-pressure hoses. But the larvae returned. “We did everything,” remembers Jeffery Hoshaw, former superintendent of the Lowell water utility. But the flies kept coming back. Finally, the town considered using modest chemical treatments, including hydrogen peroxide and other disinfectants, “but by the time we were ready to put something into practice,” Mr. Hoshaw says, “they were gone.” Neither he nor anyone else was really sure why.

Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to town, and the stoic people of Lowell met their match. In December 1987 the federal government sent an administrative order to local officials declaring their water a health hazard and demanding that Lowell resolve the issue on a strict timeline. This time the problem had nothing to do with the smell or the larvae. Instead, tests showed that Lowell’s problematic groundwater had yet another fault: exceedingly high levels of fluoride. Fluoride in low doses is good for people, especially their teeth. But high fluoride levels can leave teeth stained, and over time it can cause increased bone density, with crippling results.2 The EPA order required local officials to notify all residents of the health hazard, and the agency gave Lowell six months to find a solution to the problem and two years to implement it. If Lowell failed to meet this deadline, the EPA would either fine the town or take it to federal court, where the penalties could be as high as $25,000 per day.3 Though Lowell didn’t realize it at the time, the EPA’s order would end up snatching the town from obscurity and thrusting it to the forefront of the of the Great Lakes water-diversion debate. The experience would leave the community battered and bruised, and Great Lakes officials would walk away questioning the functionality of the antidiversion policies they had worked so hard to create...