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H2 ... uhh-Oh

Just what happened to make 'the best water in the world' turn sour?

ASHLAND ' The water percolating from a small spring beneath Interstate 5 near the Siskiyou Summit has run clean and tasty for decades, drawing thirsty residents to the gurgling pump outside Kurt Rosenthal's mountain house.

This is the best water in the world, says Rosenthal, 54, a free-lance photographer and self-professed keeper of the spring. People would come from 30 miles away to fill containers in their car.

That all changed Dec. 10, when Rosenthal says the water began to smell suspiciously like the herbicide Weedar 64 that spilled in a truck wreck six weeks earlier on I-5 up the hill from the spring.

About 500 gallons of the herbicide spilled into the soil and nearby Carter Creek, which flows under a pipe that taps into the underground spring.

Now the spring water smells and tastes so poorly that residents not only won't drink it, but people like Rosenthal won't wash with it.

— Take a bath in it and you smell, he says. This water's so bad you can't do anything with it. It's not something you'd drive anywhere for.

But exactly what makes the water taste funny has become the solemn quest of residents and water-quality experts.

And so far, no one has determined exactly why a spring that flowed fresh for decades suddenly turned tainted six weeks after the truck crash and herbicide spill.

Since the spill, environmental cleanup crews have found levels of the toxic chemical 2,4-D ' Weedar 64's main agent ' in the spring Rosenthal uses and other nearby wells, but all the levels were well under federal health standards, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Tests of samples taken Dec. 28 and Jan. 19 from the spring each showed no traces of 2,4-D, said Angie Obery, who manages this cleanup for the DEQ.

Obery says it seems strange the water apparently tasted and smelled normal with small amounts of 2,4-D in it, but now tastes and smells badly with no trace of the chemical.

I would have thought (the odd taste) would have been there immediately, Obery says. We had high concentrations in the groundwater supply at the time of the spill, and the taste was not a concern at the time.

DEQ officials remain concerned about the water's taste, and the agency continues to monitor the spring and nine other nearby wells as part of the spill's cleanup and testing program.

I'd agree with him that his water tastes unusual, Obery says. I tasted it when I was there. But I don't know what it tasted like before the spill.

DEQ's job is to ensure the spring isn't tainted directly because of the spill, she says. The agency is not sampling for other impurities such as bacteria or nitrates, which are not associated with the spill but can occasionally contaminate wells and springs, Obery says.

Spring boxes are subject to all types of threats, she says.

Spring water sampled last week will be tested for a different toxic chemical into which 2,4-D can break down.

We don't anticipate finding any amounts of this breakdown product in unsafe levels, Obery says.

Rosenthal believes the agency needs to sample for other chemicals in the Weedar 64 to find the mystery contaminant.

And he wants someone, anyone, to fix his beloved spring.

They've been telling us it's fine, but it still smells bad and tastes bad, Rosenthal says. I don't deserve this.

Water quality has been much ado about everything in this tiny hamlet of Siskiyou Summit homes since about 11 p.m. Oct. 23, when an Oak Harbor Freight Lines truck on I-5 swerved to avoid a deer and overturned, spilling about 500 gallons of herbicide near milepost 6.

Since then, the cleanup has cost more than &

36;500,000, with Oak Harbor's insurance carrier picking up about half the costs, says Larry Hansen, the company's safety manager based in Auburn, Wash.

Most of the cost came from removing the contaminated soil and shipping it to an Arlington landfill for incineration, Hansen says.

DEQ immediately ordered groundwater tests because 2,4-D can cause nervous system, kidney and liver problems in people exposed to high levels. But all the levels have been far less than needed to pose a health threat, according to the DEQ.

Rosenthal believes other agents in the Weedar 64 could be what's damaging the water, and he insists the DEQ identify and test for them.

Obery says the Weedar 64's producer lists the herbicide as containing just 2,4-D, water and an unidentified water-conditioning agent.

A Eugene firm doing the testing will contact the company to get more information on the water-conditioning agent, she says.

The upcoming test for 2,4-D's break-down agent ' called 2,4-Dichlorophenol ' could yield some answers. The product can be present after 2,4-D breaks down, but at lower levels than the 2,4-D, Obery says.

Though that compound is close, toxicity-wise to 2,4-D, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has not set any standards for what is considered unhealthy, Obery says.

Detection of it, however, could solve the mystery of the stinky spring.

If it's present, that could be the cause of the taste concerns, Obery says.

During this whole ordeal, Oak Harbor Freight and its insurance agent have offered to buy bottled water for residents in the area immediately downhill from the spill site.

It's a good-faith effort to help people out if they feel uncomfortable drinking their water, Hansen says.

So far just Rosenthal has billed the insurance carrier for the water, Hansen says.

And they haven't even paid me for it yet, he says.

Rosenthal not only wants the offending impurity identified, he wants it removed from his spring so he and all the others who stop by to fill their water jugs can again do so safely.

I want a water filter, he says. Is that too much to ask for?

Kurt Rosenthal says the waters of Carter Creek flowing from a pipe below Interstate 5 started leaving a smelly residue. Six weeks later, Rosenthal?s drinking water, which comes from a spring near the creek, has a bad smell and taste. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven