CHARLOTTE, NC (Rick Rothacker/The Charlotte Observer) - In August 2016, a contractor for Google Fiber installed a cable for its high-speed internet service through the southeast Charlotte yard of Renia Tripp and Edwin Burley.
The married couple asked the workers to be mindful of their well, but believe the contractor caused damage that allowed a high concentration of iron to build up in their drinking water.
A week later, Burley was in the hospital throwing up blood in what he believes are complications from the iron, which is essential to the body but can be toxic in high doses. They have pursued a settlement with the contractors, but so far have received no financial assistance, they say.
The couple still can't drink their water, and instead are using a variety of collection devices to gather and purify rainwater. Burley remains in poor health and worries about mounting doctor's bills. The couple say doctors told him he would eventually need a liver transplant.
"It's been one nightmare after another," Burley said.
A Google Fiber spokesman said the company does not comment on legal matters.
In recent years, yards and streets around Charlotte have been a construction zone as Google Fiber, AT&T and other providers race to build the next generation of high-speed networks.
The upgrades promise residents super-fast connections for everything from binge-watching movies to building new technology companies. But the massive construction project has also meant headaches for Charlotte residents – ranging from minor lawn damage to severe flooding from sewer lines – as the work unfolds in the right of way that runs through their yards.
Citizen complaints to the city began to spike last year as construction ramped up around Charlotte. And in February, the Observer reported that the city had sent contractors more than $688,000 in repair bills for cracked streets, water mains and other public property in a 19-month period.
The experience of Tripp and Burley is one of the more dramatic examples of how this construction can affect homeowners. The couple says the damage to their well has dominated their lives for the past year and stressed their already strained finances.
Burley has worked a variety of jobs over the years from contracting to information technology. He's also a sculptor and backyard inventor. Tripp had been a preschool teacher before leaving to care for elderly parents. They both had plans to start businesses, but say the disruption has stalled those plans.
Both in their 50s, they married in March 2016, just months before the construction started. They haven't had a chance to take a honeymoon, and Tripp says the struggle with Google Fiber has even delayed her filling out the paperwork to change her last name.
"This is not how a marriage is supposed to start," she said.
Their Google Fiber problems date to the week of Aug. 8, 2016. That's when contractors showed up to install a line along Kuykendall Road, off McKee Road.
Burley says the couple warned the workers about the well, which is only about nine feet from where they were digging. The contractor caused some ruts in his property and hit a water pipe, but the couple said they didn't know their water supply had been affected.
A week later, while on a trip to his hometown of Hope Mills near Fayetteville, Burley became violently ill at a restaurant. He began throwing up blood in the restroom and continued to do so at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
He stayed there for five days of tests and treatment. Doctors, unaware of any concerns about the couple's well, told him he appeared to be suffering liver damage related to alcohol, but Burley says that's not the case. He said he has never had major health issues before, but has since been diagnosed with diabetes and other problems.
When the couple returned home, they soon noticed signs of problems with their water. The water from the faucet was orange, while the hot tub was a muddy brown.
"We had good water," Burley said. "They drilled. And then we had contaminated water."
They called Google, which eventually sent representatives from construction firm Bechtel, a Google subcontractor, to the home. After the workers saw their water, they brought some bottled water to the home, but stopped coming after that, the couple says.
Contractors who worked on the project used trucks bearing the name of S&N Communications, photos show, although the couple later learned another company, Metro City Fiber, was also involved. Bechtel and Google Fiber are partnering together to deploy the fiber network, and city documents show that S&N Communications and Metro City Fiber are among the companies with which they are working.
Ashley Merriman, a spokeswoman for Bechtel, said the company could not comment on an ongoing legal matter. Neither S&N nor Metro City Fiber returned calls seeking comment.
Above the 'allowable limit'
For the past year, the couple has tried to get Google or the contractors to pay for repairs to their well, pipes and other appliances, plus Burley's doctor's bills. They initially hired lawyers, but are now handling the matter on their own.
In September 2016, the Mecklenburg County Health Department took a sample of their water and the results showed iron in their water at 4.9 milligrams per liter, 16 times higher than the "allowable limit" of 0.3 milligrams per liter, according to a report given to the couple.
Later, a Charlotte engineering firm, EDT Engineers, working with the couple's homeowners insurance company, determined that "drilling operations conducted by S&N Communications, Inc., in August 2016, disturbed the water in the well and/or the water that flows into the well," according to report in March.
The operation "caused the water to contain iron at a concentration above the allowable limit for a period of time after the drilling was completed," the report adds.
Doctors have told Burley he now suffers from hemochromatosis, a typically hereditary disease in which excess iron is stored in organs such as the liver, leading to potential organ failure and other diseases, according to the Mayo Clinic. The disease can also occur from outside sources causing iron overload in the body, and Burley believes that's what happened to him.
This spring, a lawyer working with the couple suggested they accept a $10,000 settlement over the matter, but they decided that wouldn't be enough. The outstanding bills from just Burley's hospital visit totaled about $24,000, the couple said.
Burley said he did not have medical insurance when he made that hospital visit, but has taken out coverage since then. Tripp said she has also suffered health problems since the construction work but said the cause is still being investigated.
The couple's homeowners insurance covered a hotel stay from December through April 1. But they returned home with their three dogs after that because money was available under the policy was running out. Now they're using rainwater for drinking and cooking water, using a tarp and plastic container to collect the water and then a homemade still and coffee pot contraption to purify the water.
They've tried to get help from federal, state and local officials with no luck. They have also started an online fundraiser at www.gofundme.com/ersafewater.