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The Fire That Changed How Dayton Sees Water

Lewis Wallace
A rainbow forms near the fountains viewed from Triangle Park at the meeting point of the Stillwater and the Great Miami Rivers. The fountains are a tribute to the abundant aquifer, which is where they get their water.

The City of Dayton is considering changes to its drinking water protections, and a public town hall meeting is set for Monday evening to hear feedback on the latest proposal.

The Source Water Protection Policy (SWPP) is designed to reduce the risk of chemical spills into the shallow aquifer that’s the water source for Dayton and most of Montgomery County, the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer. Since its passage in 1988, the city’s source water protection program has been lauded as a national example of cooperation and partnership in the name of protecting a safe drinking water supply. Clean aquifer water, while often invisible to those who depend on it, is an increasingly valuable resource.

The Dayton area’s 1.5 trillion gallon aquifer supplies 2,000 gallons a minute to individual and business customers in the region through three well fields, but as recently as the early 1980s, Dayton didn’t have any policies in place to prevent or reduce the risk of chemical spills and contamination in the aquifer. Then came the Sherwin Williams paint warehouse fire.

The fire that burned for six days

Marie and Gary Geisel’s backyard in Riverside slopes right down to the Great Miami River. Sitting at the dining room table looking out, we’re very close to where their water comes from—Gary gestures towards the yard.

“We get our drinking water from a private well, just a few feet from where we’re sitting right now,” he says. “It’s part of our rural heritage.”

We’re almost equally close to where almost everyone else’s water comes from. Just across the river is one of Dayton’s wellfields, where aquifer water is pumped up to supply more than 400,000 people in the city and the suburbs.

Credit Channel 2 WDTNTV on YouTube
A screenshot of old Channel 2 footage of the 1987 Sherwin Williams paint plant fire.

When I ask the Geisels if they remember the Sherwin Williams fire, they laugh.

“Yes of course,” Gary says. “We were here. And our house was probably the closest house to the Sherwin Williams fire of any.

In May of 1987, a spill at the paint warehouse across the river caused a small fire that quickly spread.

“We were driving home and we could see the trail of the smoke,” he says. He was asking himself where it might be coming from just as he realized the smoke was virtually on top of the Geisels’ home. They came home to a giant blaze just across the river, and shut the windows to keep out the smoke and ash.

Channel 2 news showed pictures of a billowing inferno, but here’s where the story gets strange. Fire crews came, but they couldn’t do anything, because the fire was almost on top of the Miami wellfield. The porous sand and gravel aquifer is just below the surface, and if they put out the fire with water, they could contaminate much of Dayton’s water supply. So the fire department just let the fire burn—for six days.

“People from the neighborhood would cluster around our yard so they could gawk at it,” Geisel says.

The warehouse burned to the ground, and out of the ashes came Dayton’s drinking water protection policy.


A sea change for water policy

“1987 was really an OMG moment for Dayton,” says Ellen Belcher, a former writer and editor for the Dayton Daily News. She says after the Sherwin Williams fire, people realized just how easy it would be to destroy the water supply. “That was when people said, oh my goodness, what are we going to do to protect this?”

Belcher had been following Dayton’s aquifer troubles since years before that. In 1985, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story exposing how Dayton had let industrial pollution get dangerously close to its drinking water wells.

“Itwas a huge embarrassment to this community, it was a huge embarrassment to elected officials, frankly it was a huge embarrassment to the Dayton Daily News because there was a story there that we had missed,” says Belcher.

Under increasing pressure from the public and the media, the city drafted a water protection proposal in 1985, and continued to work on it into 1986. The Sherwin Williams warehouse fire is described in a city document as a “substantial diversion of City personnel from WFPP [Well Field Protection Program] planning efforts into emergency response efforts.” Nonetheless, by late 1987 the city put forth another draft of the legislation.

That was followed by a series of public meetings and meetings with business groups, the city’s Environmental Advisory Board and environmental groups. Over nine months, the proposal underwent significant changes based on community input and was finally passed unanimously by the commission.

The policy used zoning to keep companies from bringing new dangerous chemicals into the area near the wellfields, and set up a fund to move out large loads of chemicals already present.

Belcher says it was a complicated effort that required a lot of cooperation.

“It was no easy proposition because water does not recognize geographic or jurisdictional boundaries,” she says. Huber Heights, Vandalia, Riverside, Harrison Township, Mad River Township and Wright-Patt all had to get involved, which took about two years beyond its original passage. The policy was passed in 1988 and updated in 1995, and over time it became a model for other regions.

Lessons from Sherwin Williams

Dusty Hall was the environmental manager for Dayton during much of the development of the source water protections, and he says the lessons from Sherwin Williams still stick with him—like the fact that firewalls don’t always work. He says it was a state-of-the-art facility, and the paint company literally had firewalls go up in flames. It was such an extreme case that it was studied for years after, but the point is, major accidents do happen.

“It’s not a wise thing to depend on engineering controls to try to protect the safety of drinking water for 400,000 people,” Hall says. “There’s gonna be human beings involved, there’s gonna potentially be forklifts involved. Is there a potential for an accident? I think the answer has to be yes, if your job is to protect drinking water you need to assume that kind of thing can happen.”

The Geisels, for their part, didn’t experience the Sherwin Williams fire as a watershed moment.

“You figure when you’re young that, well, there’s oversight on this, there’s rules and regulations,” says Marie Geisel. “Anything that’s close to a wellfield surely they’re gonna take the greatest care of.”

Marie Geisel says herwakeup came when some of her neighbors’ well were poisoned by the Valley Crest landfill, a nearby superfund site which is also close to the wellfields. It was a struggle to get an EPA cleanup, and as she learned, chemical cleanups are almost never complete, just contained. Marie Geisel says now she believes any protections must be fought for. “What it made me more aware of was the failure of institutions and corporations to do the right thing.”

The area over the aquifer already has factories, highways, train rails, and contaminated brownfields and superfund sites. Dusty Hall says—and the Geisels agree—the more we reduce the chances for any kind of accident there, the less likely we are to have a disaster.

A townhall event will take place Monday, Nov. 17 from 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m. at City Hall to hear public comments on the latest water protection proposal. Read a summary of the proposal and find out more about the policy here.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.

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