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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Regina Laughlin holds up her granddaughter Topanga, 4, in her home on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 in Summerville, Georgia. On January 31st, Summerville residents were advised not to consume their tap water after cancer causing chemicals were discovered during a quality inspection done by the Environmental Protection District of Georgia. Regina, who is employed by the Mohawk Industries mill, expressed concerns of the logistics of picking up fresh water for her family, as she often works during pick up hours. As the summer approaches, she's concerned they won't be able to get enough clean water to fill her family's needs.

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — The front yard still hadn't dried out Thursday from the flooding a few days earlier.

At the end of their long gravel driveway, Regina Laughlin parked her car and opened the trunk. Her husband Carey Laughlin walked out the front door when he saw her pull up.

"We'll go through about two-to-three gallons a day, just between us," he said.

The two of them — with the help of Carey's daughter Kristina — carried in a case of bottled water and a few jugs of clean drinking water they had just picked up from City Hall in Summerville 2 miles down the road.

It's become routine now. Every other day, they pull up to the side of City Hall, give a city employee their address, pick up a case of water for each house and fill up a few containers from a 5,500-gallon tanker before heading back home.

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Summerville, Georgia, drinking water shortage

Carey Laughlin's 70-year-old mother lives with him and his wife. Kristina Laughlin and her two young kids — ages 4 and 5 — live two houses down.

"We just want to know what's going on, what is safe to drink and what's not," Regina Laughlin said. "It seems like every day they tell us something different."

The Laughlins are just a few of the nearly 10,000 city water customers who have been dealing with the ongoing — and often confusing — water crisis that has plagued Summerville since Jan. 31.

The city has been advised by its own engineers, Chattooga County officials, Georgia's environmental protection division and even federal agencies about how to handle the aftermath of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid at one of the city's water treatment plants.

The chemicals, used in manufacturing, were found in the creek that flows into the plant. The city insists the levels of both chemicals in its water have not increased, but the federal EPA standards for acceptable levels have been lowered.

EPA standards changed in 2016, lowering the acceptable maximum amount of each of the chemicals from 600 parts per trillion to 70. Summerville's Raccoon Creek plant registered 98 parts per trillion, and the combined levels of both chemicals in the Goodwin Hill Tank were found to be 92 parts per trillion.

Residents had been told they shouldn't drink the water, and then three days later heard the opposite, Regina Laughlin said.

On Wednesday, the state's leading veterinarian walked back a statement he released days earlier about pets being advised not to drink the water.

Now it's safe for animals to drink the water, state veterinarian Robert Cobb said.

On Thursday, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division — the agency that first issued the health advisory — made a statement to "clarify" its initial assessment.

Local radio station WZQZ in Summerville reported the EPD clarified the first health advisory did not include a "do not drink" recommendation. The health advisory was meant to alert people of the health risks of long-term consumption.

Mike McGill, president of communications firm WaterPIO who was hired by the Georgia Rural Water Association, gave a similar message at Monday's city council meeting.

He said if an average person were to drink 2 liters of the contaminated water every day until they turned 70, that person would have a 1 in a million elevated chance of getting cancer.

But for many people in Summerville, including the Laughlin family, it's hard to start drinking the water after they have been told to pick up bottled water for free and after County Commissioner Jason Winters declared a state of emergency because of the contaminants.

Summerville City Manager Janice Galloway told the Times Free Press the water crisis could last up to a year and cost $1.2 million to fix.

Galloway released a statement Friday afternoon saying a Chattooga County water well may be able to give city customers drinkable water.

"We don't know what the heck is going on," Regina Laughlin said. "It really hasn't been made clear to us."

Carey Laughlin said he doesn't feel comfortable drinking the water from the faucet, especially a few months after he had a heart attack.

"I can't have anything contaminated with medication I'm taking," he said.

He said he really worries about the kids. Katrina Laughlin said she has been sending her kids to school with two water bottles a day.

Regina Laughlin works at the Mohawk Industries mill in Summerville. She takes about eight bottles of water to work each day and said she knows for a fact it's going to be even worse in the summer if the city doesn't figure out a solution.

"I'd say about 90% of this town works at the mills. It gets real hot in there, especially in the summer," she said. "It could get up to 110, 115 degrees in there."

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, certain elderly people and people with compromised immune systems are still being told not to drink city water.

On Thursday, the city told most residents to limit picking up bottled water from City Hall so those who are more at risk can be prioritized. City employees said they have given out hundreds of cases of bottled water every day since the emergency was declared.

It was just about lunch time when the Laughlin family carried in all their water from the driveway.

Kristina Laughlin said it takes about two bottles of water to properly make a box of macaroni and cheese.

Without any solid answers to their questions, they said, it'll be bottled water in the pot until further notice.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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