CHICO, Texas — Another North Texas town, another public water well contaminated with radioactivity.
The addition of Chico, in northwestern Wise County, makes four towns or communities that have been forced to shut down a water supply recently due to unsafe levels of radioactive particles.
It began with News 8's discovery of three public water wells in Parker County that have — in the past few months or days — been identified as contaminated.
The problem involves unacceptable levels of cancer-causing radionuclides in Hudson Oaks and in two water supplies in nearby Aledo.
Since then, News 8 has also learned of contaminated water wells at the Crazy Horse Ranch housing development, Saddle Club Estates, and Silver Creek Elementary School in Azle.
Now — in Chico — radioactivity once again makes the water too "hot" to drink.
The town's twin water towers set against a pristine sky belie the opaque understanding of what fills those tanks and flows through the pipes to faucets in homes and businesses.
It was one year ago that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality notified Chico officials the water from well No. 6 — the oldest well in the city — was suddenly contaminated with dangerous levels of uranium.
No word on why, just a warning that town residents are drinking unsafe levels of radiation.
As a result, the town cut off the flow from three of its oldest wells. But the concern did not stop there.
"We can shut off the wells as we have done; we can mix it with water from other sources to get the levels down; but that doesn't answer the question where it's coming from," said Chico Mayor J.D. Clark. "It doesn't fix the problem.
But is there a serious problem?
Despite the water exceeding federal safety standards, state environmental officials say "no."
"It's long-term exposure," said Elston Johnson, manager of the Public Water Drinking Section of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "It's not anything you need to be concerned about contracting a disease in the next two or three days."
Johnson says the public would have to drink a lot of radioactive water for years to elevate their risk of getting cancer.
So why — after years — are wells turning up unacceptable levels of radiation?
It's a complex question for which the TCEQ has only one response: "Radionuclides are naturally occurring; they are already in our soil and our water, materials have been here for millions of years," Johnson said.
Over the past several days, News 8 has been reporting on several contaminated public water wells, first in Parker and now in Wise County. But state officials say that's only part of the picture.
They showed us a map charting radioactive public water wells all over the state — not just the Barnett Shale natural gas drilling fields of North Central Texas where some suspect the radioactivity might be drilling-related.
"Until we have documentation evidence that drilling has an impact on that, we can't say that it does," Johnson said.
But the Chico mayor can't help but wonder about the activity just beyond the trees, one-half mile from the town's tainted wells, where crews work to repair a defective drilling waste disposal well.
Contained in that waste are radioactive particles from deep in the Earth.
Even though state officials say none of it has leaked into the aquifer that feeds Chico's water supply, Mayor Clark wants to know more — not just for Chico residents, but for those outside his jurisdiction.
"What if this happens in the wells up the road? What about all the people on private wells all around here that aren't tested, that don't know what's in the water?" Clark asked. "It doesn't fix anything."
But most of all, he wonders why the state is not doing more to investigate the source of a problem that poses a potential health threat for years to come.