2005-11-03 / News

Islanders hear presentation on keeping their wells safe

By Dotti Farrington

About 35 residents attended the Oct. 27 seminar on private water wells at the Jamestown library as presented by the state Department of Health and its contractor, the University of Rhode Island. About a dozen such workshops are presented throughout the state each year, with locations generally chosen on a rotating random basis.

The presenters and their printed data stressed that owners of private wells are solely responsible for testing their well water. They said that the health department recommends that water from private wells be tested once every year for coliform bacteria and nitrates, which cannot be detected by odor, taste, or color. The presenters also said under various circumstances, including whenever a property is bought, additional tests should be made for fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, nitrite, turbidity, and any suspected sources of contamination.

Town officials recently agreed to test 13 wells on properties nearest the former town landfill because of concerns raised about possible contaminants in that area. The town is also being asked to help find the cause of contamination of a well in the Jamestown Shores.

One East Passage resident said that the presenters did not seem to be aware that the town of Jamestown and some residents on the island’s north end have concerns about possible pollution coming from the town’s former landfill. That attendee suggested that most people at the seminar were from the north end because the central and southern parts of Jamestown are served by municipal water.

Landfill status

Plans for the required formal closure of the former landfill are intended to minimize or eliminate possible pollution of soils and ground water. Specifics of the closure are mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the state Department of Environmental Management. The closure plans have been detoured by the town’s intent, initiated several months ago, to site a new highway barn on a lot adjacent to the old landfill. The location of the new barn has been the subject of disagreement in town for more than 20 years. The site abutting the former landfill was rejected about three years ago, and an alternate location, at the wastewater treatment plant at Taylor Point was rejected by voters a year ago.

The next action in the town’s decision to locate a barn at the landfill site is a design revision required by the DEM for its review in coming months.

About well water

The Thursday program focused on information given in a computerized slide show. The presentation was supplemented by dozens of printed handouts offered to the attendees. The program gave definitions and various data about ground water, wells, well construction and maintenance, water testing, and home treatment and protection techniques.

“What we do in and around our homes and communities can affect the quality and quantity of our groundwater resources. Contaminants are introduced into ground water from the surface or below the surface or occur naturally,” according to the presentation. The presenters said wells must be 50 feet from sewer lines and from roads, 75 feet from septic tanks, and 100 feet from septic system drainage fields. Wells must also be uphill from any potential contamination source.

According to data at the seminar, the municipal water supply is tested regularly for more than 80 possible contaminants, and the amount of contaminants are set by the EPA and state health department.

Watershed concerns

In response to residents’ questions, the presenters reportedly told the audience that the accuracy and costs of the technology to track and trace pollution within bedrock was so difficult that the only segment of any community able to afford a comprehensive investigation was the oil industry. The discussion was spurred by interest in determining how pervasive any pollution could be in Jamestown.

Town officials have considered reports in recent months that the entire water supply, both municipal and private, is interconnected and therefore could be in jeopardy. The presenters reportedly said that ultimately all water sources potentially are interconnected, and the extent or projection or tracing of any pollution was impractical if not impossible.

Well contaminated

In addition to the pollution concerns some north end residents have because of the former landfill, at least one active case of a well contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria in the Jamestown Shores. The Town Council last week briefly discussed the town’s role in the situation, but the councilors took no action because the item was not on their agenda. They also noted that the matter is actively being reviewed by the Zoning Board of Review, and it was not proper for the council to intercede in zoning matters.

The councilors briefly discussed with the property owners, David and Jeanne Albrektson, their concerns because they had been invited to the Oct. 24 meeting. But for some reason their names were not on the the formal agenda. The Albrektsons said they know of other polluted wells, but the owners do not want to make their situations known to the public. The Albrektsons said they are pursuing public help because of concerns that developers are being allowed to overdevelop land at the expense of wells and groundwater resources.

Town Solicitor Lauriston Parks cautioned the council that finding and correcting problems with private wells “is not ordinarily a town function.” Parks had a role in advising the zoning board about implications of groundwater protection regulations, adopted in recent years, especially as they might be interpreted to mean land-taking if used to deny development of any parcel.

Councilman Julio DiGiando last week expressed concern that town officials “have some responsibility” in such matters.

Possible pollutant

Councilors last week also heard, but did not comment, on arsenic as another possible pollutant of ground water from the former landfill. Ellen Winsor, one of the vocal members of the North End Concerned Citizens in recent months, told the council about implications of arsenic, a naturally occurring soil element. She said that the amount found in recent tests at the landfill showed that the arsenic was higher than allowed under federal EPA standards. She cited at least five sources about the implications of high arsenic levels, including association with lung cancer and other diseases.

Winsor told the councilors that more stringent federal standards for arsenic will go into effect in 2006 and must be tested for in municipal water supplies, but she was concerned about the well water users, which number more than 450 households in the former landfill area.

According to health department data, arsenic is not as much a concern in Rhode Island as it is in New Hampshire, Maine, and other parts of the U.S. The health department arsenic report said that the element also occurs because it is used in wood preservatives, pesticides, and industrial products. It can be detected only through a water test, and can be removed or reduced by specific filtering systems, according to health department.

Protect workers

Winsor also outlined regulations that apply to use of landfillrelated water for use by humans. She said she was concerned about the town’s plan to furnish the proposed barn with water from a well on Lot 47, adjacent to the landfill, having been rated as not fit for human consumption. Winsor outlined several reports showing that water not fit for drinking is also not fit for washing anything people use or for people washing themselves. She listed regulations of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also known as OSHA, that she said applied.

For information

Copies of the reports about private water wells are available from the URI Home-A-Syst program, 874-5398, or the health department’s Office of Drinking Water Quality, 222-6867.

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