BELLECHESTER, Minn. — Sharon Kerr won't drink her tap water.
There's good reason.
When she would drink the water — something she stopped doing a few years ago — she would break out in hives.
Wash her clothes? Hives. Bathe? Hives.
An allergy test at Mayo Clinic showed she can't tolerate metals. But there are metals in the water. So even if she doesn't drink the water any longer — "I drink bottled water," she said — the contaminates are in her clothes or they get on her when she showers.
Last summer, some maintenance on the water lines cleared things up somewhat, but still the problem continues, even if to a lesser degree.
"It's not as bad, except when I use hot water," she said, adding that her water heater is still filled with the contaminates even if the city water is somewhat cleaner.
She's on medication to clear up the problems on her skin and reduce the inflammation when it begins to itch, and despite the improvements, she doesn't believe it's safe enough for her to consume. In fact, she still gets blisters from washing herself or her clothes.
What's in the water?
Kyle McKeown, the public works employee for Bellechester in southeast Minnesota, said the city regularly tests for everything from fluoride and chloride to sodium and sulfates. The city's water test results show no violations of the federal standard for drinking water for those substances and others.
That said, McKeown added that "Bellechester's water has been rusty forever."
Eliminating the rust, he said, would likely cost much more than the city could afford.
To alleviate the problem, the city routinely flushes hydrants, which clears its water lines, twice a year — spring and fall.
For individuals who still have problems, McKeown said the solution is to let the water run for a few minutes to wash the sediment through the lines. This is especially true for homes at the end of a water line.
That, he said, is the problem faced by some residents who live in the city's mobile home court neighborhood. That, and while the city water lines go directly to most homes in town, the city's lines go to the trailer court itself. The water lines to each home are a separate system not owned by the city.
Who is to blame?
"It's always been this bad," said Keith Blattner, who has lived in the mobile home court for about 20 years.
Blattner, who is Kerr's son, said he can recall his wife complaining about the rusty water about two decades ago.
"Our tanks are full of rust," Blattner said. "Our water heaters. I think the city should replace our water heaters. We didn't fill it up with rust, the pump house did that."
To combat the problem, Blattner said he's connected a water filter to where the water comes into the house. But the system, which costs nearly $100 to install, goes through a filter every three months, and when the filter is changed, "it comes out orange."
"That's why I put in a filter," he said. "I don't care how much it costs me."
Kerr added her frustration.
"Every time we complain, they say 'Flush it out. Flush it out,'" she said. "I'm losing appliances right and left, and I can't afford that."
Small town, big projects
It's not that the city hasn't heard the complaints. McKeown said he's been sent photos and videos of water that has rust, but to fix the issue for the whole city would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not everyone in the city has a complaint.
Mayor Jody Gordon, who has been in her position for less than a year, said she has a business in town and lives in town, and she drinks the water, cooks with it, washes with it, and has no problems.
The city is planning for a sewer project that will cost $1.3 million to deal with infiltration into the sewer lines. But that's the water leaving the houses, not going to them.
Furthermore, it's hard to justify the cost when the city's water quality report shows no violations with regard to EPA standards.
Still, as the city's water rates increase, Kerr finds it troubling that she's asked to pay more for a utility she cannot use as others do.
"When I pay for water, it should at least be drinkable water," Kerr said.