Apr. 30–The owner of two community water systems is in the Montgomery County
jail for contempt of court after failing to treat or test the water he delivered
to his customers.
Until this month, state environmental regulators gave 85-year-old W. L. Coleman
of Vidalia more than a decade to comply with safe drinking water regulations.
Coleman operates water systems that serve Lazy River Estates and Three Rivers
Estates, which are across the street from each other near where the Oconee and
Ocmulgee rivers join to become the Altamaha.
Coleman was found in contempt and jailed April 2, said his son Tom Coleman. Such
a step is unusual for the state Environmental Protection Division, said Kevin
Chambers, the EPD’s communications director. Although the EPD has had to pursue
charges against people for illegal scrap-tire dumping and auto emissions fraud,
violators usually work with the state to resolve problems before courts get
involved, and almost always before jail becomes a possibility.
Recent court orders against W.L. Coleman indicate that his failure to comply
with state law "presents a threat to public health and safety."
An order by Montgomery County Superior Court Judge Fred Mullis Jr., dated April
16, indicates that recent photographs showed contaminants such as gasoline cans
and oil filters near the wells.
Because they are in the Altamaha River flood plain, the wells could be
contaminated during high flow if they are not secured, Chambers said.
In 2005, after state tests showed unacceptably high bacteria levels, the EPD
notified users of the Lazy River water system that they should boil their
drinking water, he said. The advisory remains in effect.
It’s unclear how many homes are served by the water systems because Coleman has
never provided complete information to the state, said Russ Willard, a spokesman
for the state attorney general’s office. His office represents the state
Environmental Protection Division against Coleman in the case.
Chambers said 1994 EPD documents indicated that 153 people were using the water
at that time.
Tom Coleman estimated that about 65 homes are now served by the water systems,
partly because some residents have drilled their own wells.
He said his father was a part owner of two companies that sold land lots in the
neighborhoods starting in the late 1970s. The companies also set up a well
system to provide water to buyers.
W.L. Coleman continued to sell water as state regulations changed to require
chlorination and more water testing. Chambers said EPD records indicate that
Coleman chlorinated the water for about six months in 2003.
As a community water system operator, Coleman was also responsible for keeping
daily operating reports and arranging for water samples to be tested
periodically for total coliform bacteria, lead, copper and radiological
‘REFUSED TO COMPLY’
The EPD first sent notices of violation to Coleman in 1996 for Safe Drinking
Water Act violations. Chambers said six administrative orders were issued
between 1999 and 2004 requiring that he test the water and take other steps to
comply with the law.
"It would look like he was on the right track, and then he would lapse,"
Although it was Coleman’s responsibility, the EPD finally tested the water
itself, leading to the boil-water order. Chambers said EPD employees continue to
occasionally sample for total coliform bacteria, an indicator of bacteria that
can cause gastrointestinal illness.
In September 2006, the EPD filed a motion for contempt against W.L. Coleman.
Superior Court Judge Phillip R. West found that Coleman had "willfully and
disdainfully refused to comply."
West gave Coleman 10 to 30 more days to meet various requirements, from water
testing to getting a certified water system operator. The order stated that if
Coleman failed to comply in time, he would have to pay $500 a day until he did.
Coleman returned to court April 2, when he was jailed and fined $81,000. The
conditions of the order must be met before Coleman will be released from jail,
said Willard, the attorney general’s spokesman.
"The court had no alternative but to hold him in contempt," Willard said.
"Coleman’s response to EPD and the court is to ignore them, basically."
Willard said Coleman also lied to the court. One of the few steps Coleman took
was to get chlorinators installed at the wells, but Coleman later told the court
that these had been stolen.
"We have evidence that they were repossessed because of his failure to pay for
them," Willard said.
All month, Coleman’s children have been trying to bring the water systems up to
state standards. A status conference with the judge could be held as early as
today, Willard said.
"The state’s primary concern is compliance … for the health and safety of
those water systems," Willard said.
Tom Coleman, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, called the court’s actions
callous, saying his father’s health is at risk. He said it has been hard to make
sense of the water systems without his father’s help.
He said he thinks his father hired companies several times to address some of
the problems, but work stopped because of disputes. Although W.L. Coleman was
taking water samples at one point, the state was rejecting them because he
wasn’t getting them tested fast enough, his son said.
Tom Coleman said the EPD probably tried to help his father, whom he acknowledged
is sometimes a stubborn, "volatile character."
"I think from his perception, he was thinking, ‘Hey, these things have been
running for 20 years. Why do I need to do anything differently than before?’ "
Tom Coleman said.
However, he added, "I am very confident that Dad is not capable of doing the
things they asked him to do. … Some of it, I think, it was past his ability in
Whether the fine must be paid before Coleman is released "will be a subject of
discussion between Coleman’s attorney, our office and the court," Willard said.
Title: Water systems owner jailed: Montgomery County man failed to treat, test water
Authors: Heather Duncan, S.
Source: Macon Telegraph, The (GA); 04/30/2007