Out of service fire hydrant in Charlestown, Indiana

A fire hydrant was marked"out of service" in the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood in Charlestown, IN.

CHARLESTOWN, Ind. (WDRB) -- When there's a fire, you need fire hydrants. But a WDRB News investigation found dozens of fire hydrants aren't working properly in Charlestown.

Indiana American Water purchased Charlestown Water in March and is now fixing a number of problems including a long-running problem with brown and discolored water.

"Over the years, we've had some issues with fire hydrants," Director of Public Utilities Mike Perry said.

One fire hydrant in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood is tagged out of service. 

Charlestown Water's inspection by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management states "significant deficiencies were found during the inspection" in December. 

The most significant? Fire hydrants not working.

"Some broke, some may be extremely hard to turn off and on," Perry said. "Some that may not be shutting down all the way or a valve that leads to the hydrant not operating properly."

Documents show that the city of Charlestown has known about the faulty hydrants for years. It says, "there are numerous hydrants and valves throughout the entire distribution system that are not operational," and were "noted in Sanitary surveys from 2013 and 2016."

Another inspection said, "These hydrants and valves are a necessity and must be replaced in order to fight fires and to aid in isolation to the systems for repairs."

"The state makes those water system surveys every couple of years, and they issue recommendations and sometimes requirements," said Bill Reedy with Indiana American Water. "We take those very seriously, and it's not something we would let sit."

Perry is also a firefighter. He said when IAW decided to purchase Charlestown Water, the city only made small repairs on the fire hydrants because of the huge costs of full replacement. And then, there were court holdups.

"That's why from 2016 to March the 5th of this year, there was a big delay in their plan," Perry said. "They had a five-year plan of $7 million to $8 million of improvements, and hydrants is one of them."

When asked whether it is fair to residents that during this purchase time these hydrants just sat broken and not repaired? Perry said he didn't have an answer.

"I don't want to get myself into it, you know what I'm saying?" he said. "We'd like every hydrant that's out there, it would be nice if they were working. When we were looking at the 50 hydrants, we were looking at a cost of $175,000.

"I understand being in the management level of it, like I said before, you can only do so much with what you got. And I do understand the importance of the hydrants."

IAW said there are 291 hydrants in Charlestown, and the company has now inspected all of them.

"We notify the fire departments if anything is inoperable and that's our typical standard that we do anywhere. So they have the ability to hook up alternately," Reedy said. "The big thing is (firefighters) don't like surprises. They don't want to come up on a hydrant and expect it to work and have it not work."

Starting this week, IAW will replace 65 hydrants and will add another 29.

On Market Street, a busy area of Charlestown, IAW plans to replace 11  hydrants.

Reedy said residents will see crews out working on the hydrants.

"Part of it for distribution purposes and fire protection, but also it's part of this plan to be able to flush the water system to improve the water quality," he said.

When asked about the number of hydrants that IAW now has to replace and if that's surprising, Reedy says, "Well, maybe, but I think things happen and we've put that list together, and we're going to replace those all within a month."

Meanwhile, residents said they're frustrated and still fed up with brown water. There have been more cases in the last few weeks. It's all from Manganese in Charlestown's aging pipes. Residents have shared numerous pictures and video, one of which shows brown water coming out of a hose. Others show brown residue and brown water in cups, toilets, sinks and bathtubs.

When asked how long it will take for residents to see clear water for good, Reedy says, "I think we'll now a little bit better after we get the flushing down. That'll take place over a number of weeks."

The list of problems in Charlestown Water's sanitary survey is long:

  • "Generators at the plant ... have never been operational ... as noted in 2013 and 2016.
  • "Salt for fluoride softener is stored on floor. when it's supposed to be placed off the ground.
  • The "Treatment plant is in a state of disrepair" with a falling ceiling.

The last 10 pages of the Charlestown inspection were blacked them out, because of Homeland Security concerns.

"We've reviewed those, and we've implemented all of the outstanding recommendations that were there," Reedy said, adding that IAW showed residents some of the upgrades made at the last public meeting.

Greg Aaron, the former water superintendent of Charlestown Water sent this statement:

"When I left March 2019 due to the system being sold to IAW, there were 60+ hydrants bad, leaking and inoperable ... The current administration would not allow them to be fixed without Mayor Hall's approval. I couldn’t spend money I didn’t have access too. And if I bucked the system, I had to worry about my job.

"After all, the safety of our citizens and better drinking water should be priority for every administration Democrat or Republican.

"As a firefighter this makes it rough on myself and my firefighter brothers to save homes and property."

IAW said it has already cleaned wells and tanks and removed sediment.

"We've put emergency generator capability at both the plant and the well fields, so we're prepared to operate in a case of emergency," Reedy said.

He said the short-term plan is to flush the system no later than mid-September.

"We think that's the fastest," he said. "Best thing we can do to improve water quality."

IAW said brown water complaints are dealt with individually, and customers with issues should make sure to call the company for help.

The Charlestown Fire chief and Public Information Officer declined a request for interviews. 

"We ask that any further questions regarding the water system in the City of Charlestown be directed to Indiana American Water Corporation, again the Charlestown Volunteer Fire Department Inc. is a 501-c-3 private organization, that does not play into politics, as we are not owned nor controlled by the city of Charlestown," Battalion Chief Andre Heal said.

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Valerie Chinn joined WDRB in 2001. She focuses on investigative journalism and anchors WDRB News at 11:30 and Noon. Got a tip? Reach Valerie at 502-585-0875 and vchinn@wdrb.com