Pitman: Hamilton’s Bui has water in his blood

The man currently leading the team that makes some of the world’s best-tasting water essentially got his start as a boy growing up in Vietnam.

And not only did John Bui arrive in Hamilton in the 1980s by a chance connection through his older brother, he’s lucky he made it at all.

Bui, 56, started with the city in 1992, working in the Water and Wastewater Laboratory putting his Miami University chemistry degree to use. As young as 10 years old, though, living in a small Vietnam village, he would help his mother treat the family’s water that was carried from the river to their home.

She would pour the water into a 55-gallon drum, and then give her son a big crystal — he later would learn as a Miami University chemistry student it was alum, a common chemical for treating surface water — and tell him to mix it in the water for about five to 10 minutes, then put the crystal aside.

But his water treatment work would be put on hold for about a decade. In the early 1980s, he and his brothers escaped Vietnam. Their boat was aimed for Malaysia. But on day three of the journey, with the Malaysian coast in view, the engine broke and their boat slowly drifted away from the shoreline.

They spent weeks adrift in the open ocean. After two weeks, they ran out of water, but they did have that 55-gallon drum and the ability to collect rainwater from the three horrific storms that barraged their boat. But at one point during that nearly month-long journey, they were left with just the rusty water at the bottom of the barrel. They ended up drinking the orange-colored water after running it through a coffee filter.

Near the end of their journey, their boat became stuck against rocks. Though they were near the Philippines, some 1,400 miles from their original destination of Malaysia, it was still days until a Filipino patrol boat rescued them. Bui and his family stayed at a Philippines refugee camp for 16 months until a military connection of his older brother ― a friend that happened to live in Hamilton ― got them to the United States.

Bui, who had at that time only finished the fifth grade in Vietnam, was enrolled into Hamilton High School as a 16-year-old freshman. He barely spoke English.

“But I worked hard,” he said. “All I did was study and try to catch up.”

Now, Bui and his team are responsible for the best-tasting water in the world, which draws the raw water from the Miami Valley Buried Aquifer.

And while they treat the water pretty much the same as other municipalities, Bui said it’s the way they disinfect the water before it’s circulated to the public that gives them the edge when it comes to taste.

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Hamilton has consistently been among the top finishers, including two best-in-the-world honors (2010 and 2015) in the Best Municipal Water category at the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition in West Virginia.

It’s Bui’s passion for what he’s done for the city over the past three decades, and for his family when he was a child, that keeps him motivated.

Bui has a lot to be thankful for in his life. His mother for giving him life, the Filipino people giving him a second chance to live, and America ― and specifically Butler County and Hamilton ― for giving him a chance to thrive.

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