Water towers are often the most visible part of where your water comes from, but Fox 2 News found it’s the first thing many utilities neglect. Missouri residents have died from dirty water towers, yet the state has no requirement for cleaning them.
You can see the neglect of Leadwood, Missouri's water storage tank, but it’s what’s on the inside that concerns people who drink the water. Leadwood has no record of ever cleaning its water tank. It was last inspected 17 years ago, before Mayor Dennis Parks’ time in office.
“(Inspectors) said the tank was in bad shape. That we needed new tanks,” Mayor Parks said.
Meanwhile, Leadwood residents have brown water coming from their taps.
“It’s not today, but it may tomorrow, and it may last that way for a week,” said resident Douglas Evans.
One resident saved a milk jug of the water to show our Fox 2 camera crew. Other residents posted pictures on Facebook.
“If you try to take a shower in the hot water, you’re standing in a steamy shower, it’s unbearable,” Evans said. “You want a set of swimmer’s nose plugs on to take a bath.”
Missouri doesn’t require cleaning water storage tanks. Most states don’t. But the consequences are potentially fatal.
“There’s no rule saying they have to do something,” said Ron Perrin, owner of Ron Perrin Water Technologies. It’s easy to get put off.”
Perrin's company inspects and cleans water tanks. He showed us video from what he found inside water towers in other communities.
“Here we’re looking at a few inches of sediment. Most tanks we inspect have three inches or less, but every once in a while we find a facility that has feet instead of inches. You never know what you have until you look.”
The EPA documented seven people who died from a dirty water tank in Gideon, Missouri in 1995 after “pigeon droppings on the tank roof were carried into the tank by wind and rain through a gap in the roof hatch.”
The EPA added “44% of the city’s residents were affected by diarrhea.”
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources studied the problem in 2006 and put out a bulletin saying “25 percent or more of tanks may be contaminated.”
Mayor Parks said the water's fine at his place.
“I drink this water all the time,” he said.
The mayor said the Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted bacterial inspections and the samples were determined to be “coliform absent” and thus considered “safe.”
“It’s a visual thing and even if it’s cloudy, it’s safe, but it is a visual thing,” Parks said.
The mayor said the water only pours brown after a line break stirs things up.
Our inspector said when looking at other community tanks, they sometimes find decaying animals, especially birds.
“Even viruses can make a home in the sediment,” Perrin said.
“I am surprised there’s not an inspection required for a water tower or distribution system. We do exactly what the state mandates,” Parks said.
Fox 2 News also checked a few of the most prominent water towers in the St. Louis area, including the Arnold water tower, Fairview Heights with its tower on the mall parking lot, and those in St. Louis County. All of them documented recent inspections and cleaning, even though it’s not required by state regulators.
The State of Missouri Department of Natural resources does recommend routine inspection, cleaning and maintenance to protect public health. The agency published the following guide for utilities last year. Recommendations include inspections every year and cleanings every two to five years.