David v. Goliath: Afton’s Water Fight With Feds Could Cost Wyoming Town Millions

Facing off against the EPA, Afton prepares to fight a federal mandate that would require more than $12 million in infrastructure improvements.

September 28, 20226 min read

Afton wyoming arch
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

If a preliminary determination by the Environmental Protection Agency over the quality of Afton’s drinking water becomes final, it could cost the town millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades.

The EPA “came here with a solution looking for a problem,” said Afton Town Administrator Violet Sanderson. 

The town of 2,200 people draws its drinking water from Periodic Spring, which the EPA believes is impacted by surface water, meaning water at the surface seeps down into the town’s drinking water source, potentially making it unsafe. 

If the agency’s final determination supports that conclusion, the town will need to build a treatment facility costing more than $12 million. For a town with an annual general budget of $4.6 million, it’s a hefty price. 

“That will more than double our base rate for water,” Sanderson said. “And that does not even take into account the operation and maintenance costs.”

The EPA contends its actions are necessary to protect the health of the residents. 

Rich Mylott with the public affairs branch of the EPA Region 8 said in an email that while Afton meetings all requirements for groundwater systems, the federal agency has evidence that Periodic Spring is influenced by surface water, which may contain illness-causing organisms like cryptosporidium and giardia, which aren’t killed by chlorine. 

“EPA’s proposed determination for the Afton drinking water system’s Periodic Spring is based on drinking water regulations intended to safeguard public health and a large body of facts, data, analyses, and lines of evidence that reflect the best available science,” Mylott said.

Sparkling Clean

Wyoming is the only state where the EPA is directly tasked with monitoring and enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act. All other states have applied to keep that authority at state or local levels. 

The EPA held a three-hour public hearing on the issue at the Star Valley High School in Afton on Tuesday. Sanderson said 35 comments were entered into the record, and they were unanimously opposed to the EPA’s determination. 

Afton resident Margaret Tueller submitted a written comment to the EPA’s hearing docket in which she describes the town’s water as “ice cold, sparkling clean, with a delicious taste” and the envy of visitors. 

“Why would we ever need to build a multimillion-dollar filtration treatment facility, which would require millions more dollars to maintain, when we already have a system in place that covers us 100% of the time?” Tueller wrote. 

David Kennington said Afton’s delivery system is entirely gravity flow requiring no boosting pumps. If the town has to implement the EPA’s treatment system, the system will need pumps, which will require more energy and prevent the town from using a hydro electric system that provides green energy to the area’s grid. 

Tom Davis is a 52-year Afton resident who said the town has won national contests for the taste of its water and conducts monthly tests. 

“We have the most unusual and best domestic water system not only in Wyoming, but the whole United States. Let’s not try to fix something that is not broken,” he wrote. 

The agency doesn’t consider the cost of making safe water determinations, Mylott said, but there are “several financial assistance programs that could work with other state and federal entities to assist Afton with funding for any required infrastructure changes.

Seeking Help

State Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, said when he first heard of the EPA’s determination and what it could mean for Afton, he knew a small town could not go up against the large resources and bureaucracy of a large a federal agency alone. 

“We’re a very small town, and we’re going to need some help on this,” Dockstader said. 

Dockstader arranged a conversation between Sanderson and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, who then helped form a delegation with U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis and Rep. Liz Cheney, all R-Wyoming, to assist Afton in the town’s response to the EPA’s preliminary determination

The determination is a classification called “groundwater under the direct influence of surface water,” or GWUDI. 

The state’s congressional delegation wrote a joint letter to the administrator of the EPA’s Region 8, the division that oversees Wyoming’s drinking water, questioning the reliability tests that shaped the agency’s determination. 

The letter points out that Afton’s compliance sampling over the past 15 years has been excellent and there have been no documented or suspected disease outbreaks as a result of unsafe drinking water. It recounts discussions with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which also disputes the determination. 

“Despite this finding and ongoing discussion between all parties, EPA appears to be moving forward with a GWUDI determination,” the letter reads. 

Testing Bias?

Sanderson said the determination relies heavily on a test that the EPA’s policies say shouldn’t be relied on for a GWUDI determination. 

“By their own admission, the EPA has stated that the MPA (microscopic particulate analysis) test is subjective,” Sanderson said. 

Cowboy State Daily did not receive a response to an inquiry to the EPA Region 8 office. 

Sanderson also is concerned about the impartiality of the agency because, she said, the person who is ultimately in charge of finalizing the assessment has a bias against using springs as a drinking water source. 

“The EPA is not making this determination based on any sort of issues we’ve had with our water,” Sanderson said. “We have a longstanding history of good, clean water that has been provided to our community.”

Mylott defended the agency’s testing procedures, explaining that the use of the MPA is “reasonable based on science and national policy, and is used by most states.” 

“EPA GWUDI guidance has recognized that all available hydrogeologic, water quality, and water quantity data should be utilized to make a GWUDI determination, including using MPA,” Mylott said. 

The EPA is taking comments through Oct. 4. The agency will then review all the data and comments before making a final determination.

In the meantime, Dockstader, Sanderson and Wyoming’s federal delegation continues to work with the EPA to stave off a final GWUDI determination. 

“That’s kind of where we’re at,” Dockstader said. “I don’t want to back off, and I want our town to push back.” 

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