PALMER LAKE, Colo. — Every day, retired Army veteran Donald Simmons must make a choice: pay $5 to shower at the nearest truck stop, or risk showering in contaminated water at home.
Lately, she has been reluctantly taking showers at home, but refuses to drink the tap water for fear that it will endanger her long-term health.
“It could cause cancer. Nobody knows what’s going on,” said Simmons, 68. «You have to shower.»
Simmons has lived in Elephant Rock Mobile Home Park, a small community about 25 miles south of Colorado Springs, for 13 years, and state authorities say the water quality violations date back 15 years.
The two private underground wells that supply water to Elephant Rock contain high levels of radium, a cancerous radioactive metal, according to state officials.
Elephant Rock’s problems are part of a larger problem in Colorado’s more than 800 mobilehome parks, where water and private wells have not been tested for decades, said state lawmakers who have regularly received complaints about smelly, discolored water that tastes bad and could be dangerous to residents’ health.
While no data is available to show how widespread the problem is, some lawmakers said the complaints they received lead them to believe that many mobilehome parks do not meet federal drinking water standards. Until recently, the state did not require testing.
“We don’t know more than what the residents tell us,” said state Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, a Fort Collins Democrat. “There are pieces that are alarming to anyone, like the taste and the smell, and where you wouldn’t want to put your kids in the bathtub at night.”
Many mobile home park residents have sought help from the Colorado Poverty Law Project, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent homelessness, said project deputy director Jack Regenbogen.
“We have heard from residents that the water is almost undrinkable,” Regenbogen said. «We’ve seen images of brown water.»
He said many low-income mobilehome park residents are afraid to file water contamination complaints for fear of being evicted from the only homes they can afford. The median income in Colorado is $2,200 a month, agreementYong to Zilow. By comparison, rent at mobile home parks can be as low as $600 a month.
Records from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show that residents of about 15 mobilehome parks have filed 37 complaints since tracking began in March 2020. The complaints cite illness, discoloration, poor taste and the failure of park owners to notify residents of poor water quality.
Parks where residents have complained include Mountainside Estates in Golden, Peak View Park in Woodland Park and Elephant Rock.
A poll conducted last year by Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a Colorado-based Latino advocacy group, found that 40% of Latinos who live in mobile home parks in the state do not trust the water.
“How come we still have these communities where these environmental injustices are happening?” said Alex Sanchez, the group’s president.
At the Apple Tree mobile home park on the outskirts of Aspen, resident Danule Feichko, 21, said the owners don’t seem to care about the 900 or so residents forced to deal with yellowish tap water.
Park manager Henry Hendrickson declined to comment and referred questions to owner Investment Property Group, which did not respond to multiple phone and email messages.
“I haven’t drunk the water in three years,” Feichko said, adding that he plans to move for the water. “We have the worst water you have ever seen.”
Her neighbor Matgahta DeSantiago, 63, is also concerned.
«I don’t drink the water. It is contaminated,” she said.
No complaints about the park’s water quality have been filed with the state health department.
To address growing concern, the state Legislature this year passed Bill 1257that will allow the health department to test the water in the hundreds of mobile home parks in the state over the next five years.
“People deserve a decent life,” said Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, a Glenwood Springs Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill who grew up in a mobile home park. The Ella district in western Colorado includes about 300 of them.
The law, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law last month, also requires park owners to remediate any contaminated water found in tests.
Elephant Rock, which contains about 40 mobile homes, was the target of a state enforcement case in 2009, when then-owner Lucky Kim Sr. was cited for failing to monitor and report nitrate, residue and disinfectant byproducts, lead and copper in the water, court records show.
The case was settled via a consent decree, but more violations occurred between 2014 and 2018, such as failing to distribute an annual consumer confidence report, records show.
Since then, the park’s water has exceeded allowable radium levels 15 times, court documents show.
persistent exposure to radioa naturally occurring radioactive metal formed by the decay of uranium and thorium, can cause increased incidences of bone, liver or breast cancer, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2021, the state health department said it took «the extraordinary step» of issuing two notices warning residents not to drink the water after Kim failed to respond to a violation and failed to provide bottled water to residents within 24 hours of being notified to do so.
He state filed suit in August against Lucky Oliver Kim Jr., who became the park’s owner two years ago after his father’s death, alleging he violated drinking water laws.
State officials said Kim Jr. failed to remedy the radio violations, which increased the risk of cancer for residents.
In February, Kim Jr. was cited for contempt of court for failure to appear and remedy the violations, court records show.
They ordered him to pay a $70,000 civil penaltyand is being fined a remedial penalty of $100 per day until he submits a plan to provide safe drinking water that must be approved by state health officials.
Kim Jr. has agreed to clean up the water, public health officials said, but has so far taken no steps to remove radium from Elephant Rock’s two groundwater wells, which remain contaminated.
Attempts to reach Kim Jr. for comment were unsuccessful.
At least one Elephant Rock resident says she has no problem drinking the water.
«It’s not bad water. It has been tested multiple times and is fine,” said Sandy, who asked to be identified by her name only out of concern for her privacy.
But her neighbor Karolina Long, who has a disability and has lived there for 24 years, said she filters and boils the water before using it.
“I’m nervous about doing anything with the water. They have told us that there is radio in the well,” she said. “What kind of harm will it do, not just to me, but to all of us?”