CROW AGENCY — Crews of Crow Tribe employees worked into the night Wednesday and again Thursday morning to deliver trailer-loads of bottled water to homes in Crow Agency, where the municipal water supply has been shut down after a break-in at the water treatment plant.
The tribe’s chairman, A.J. Not Afraid, declared a state of emergency Wednesday after workers at the water treatment facility discovered the plant had been broken into overnight and much of its contents had been destroyed.
Citing concerns that the water supply may have been compromised by the vandalism, the tribe issued an advisory to city residents not to touch the municipal water supply until testing determines it's safe. The shutdown applies to about 1,600 residents in the city, said Candy Felicia, who is the director of the Crow Tribe's Water Authority.
She estimated the vandalism caused at least $1 million in damage to the facility.
"We are looking at approximately three months or more to get it up and running," Felicia said. "The main thing is we've got to get all this equipment replaced. It has to be bought out of state."
Officials sent water samples to a lab in Helena for testing and hoped to have results back later in the day, said Environmental Protection Agency On-Scene Coordinator Martin McComb, who arrived with an EPA emergency response crew from Denver on Thursday morning.
“The tribal plant is definitely going to be down for a little while,” McComb said after an initial assessment. But an adjacent water treatment plant managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was unaffected, and he said it would be able to temporarily satisfy demand.
In the meantime, water sitting in the distribution lines running throughout the town may still be contaminated. If that water turns out to be contaminated, Felicia said, flushing out that water could take another week or two.
About 20 employees with the tribe and the Crow Tribal Housing Authority were loading cases of bottled water onto trucks and delivering them to residents throughout Crow Agency, said Laura Little Owl, director of the tribe's Fish and Game Department, who was helping coordinate water distribution.
“We probably worked until about 9 last night and delivered a case to every home in Crow Agency,” Little Owl said.
Laura Rideshorse, the Crow Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, said the Red Cross has contacted her office to offer help, and would also be supplying bottled water once the tribe’s resources are exhausted, if necessary. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs had also offered to help provide water to veteran residents affected by the outage, Rideshorse added.
The Crow Agency School was closed Wednesday and Thursday as a result of the water issue, said Hardin Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Gerke. The school district is awaiting word from the EPA before deciding whether to close the school through the rest of the week.
Investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also at the plant Thursday morning. Those at the scene declined to comment, and an FBI spokesman in Billings said the agency is investigating, but would not comment on whether any arrests had been made.
A suspect was taken into custody at some point on Wednesday in connection with the break-in, according to Jared Stewart, a media liaison for Not Afraid. Stewart said he didn’t have any additional information on the case, however.
At the tribe’s water treatment building, a wrenched-open door offered a glimpse of overturned filing cabinets and other furniture, with papers burned and strewn across the floor. A shotgun appeared to have been fired through the window of a door into a small, adjoining building in the back of the plant, where bullet holes riddled the regulator on a tank of chlorine used to treat water, as well as the wall behind it. The chlorine tank itself was not damaged, McComb said.
Much of the equipment inside the facility had also been burned and shot, said Tanner Black Eagle, the lead operator at the plant who was among the employees to see the damage firsthand when he arrived at work Wednesday.
He noted that a large amount of chemicals appeared to have been dumped into the system, possibly compromising the treated water in the clear well. The normally sealed hatch to the clear well had been forced open, he said.
“That’s my main concern, is the possibility of contamination, even the oils on your hands — that’s how crucial it is that that is sealed,” Black Eagle said, adding that broom handles and other objects had been thrown in.
Referring to “Filter Aid," a treatment chemical used at the facility, he added, “We only use one gram per gallon, and they dumped 40 pounds of that stuff throughout the system.
Plant foreman Brewster Pretty On Top said it will take time to repair the computer system that controls the plant’s operations, which he said had also been shot during the break-in.
“That’s the heart and soul of the water treatment system,” Pretty On Top said.
Felicia also said the plant wouldn't reopen without substantially beefed-up security, including guards keeping watch around the clock.
"We’ve worked really hard to get the plant to where it’s at these past few months," she said. "It’s pretty much a whole new crew that’s come aboard. We’re going to rebuild. We’re going to go on. This time we just have to be a bit smarter about security."