Couple tells council of contaminated well
The three-year saga of a Jamestown Shores couple trying to get help with the contamination of their household well was told to the Town Council at its Nov. 14 meeting without a happy ending.
The couple, David and Jeanne Albrektson of Schooner Avenue, began to unveil their “dirty little secret” months ago, as they set basic goals: identifing the source of the contamination, correcting it, and preventing a recurrence. The lack of help they received from local and state authorities led to more needs.
The Albrektsons said they need to find others with contaminated well water as part of their efforts to fully define the problem and to create solutions. They admitted that well contamination ordinarily is a secret guarded by property owners. They noted more than once how “difficult it is to admit your well is spoiled and how frustrating it is that no one will help you find why it is contaminated.”
The Albrektsons told the council that the pollution was caused by fecal coliform bacteria, and that it is being treated. They said they are convinced that the bacteria is coming from new septic systems in their neighborhood that are being allowed to be placed too close to wells. They believe that factor is combined with the general overdevelopment of the Jamestown Shores and the flooding that is generated by too much displacement of ground water by what many agree is overdevelopment. The Albrektsons, however, cannot prove the exact source of the pollution of their well, and they can find no one to help them find it.
After a five month investigation, the state Department of Environmental Management has agreed that the Jamestown Shores has problems, but the regulatory agency says it focuses its attention on the need for septic systems and does not have authority over private water wells. The investigation covered a review of what state officials have or have not done. The investigation did not include any direct testing on the Albrektsons’ property.
DEM Director W. Michael Sullivan told the Albrektsons of the results of the investigation ordered by Governor Donald Carcieri. The governor has been trying to get legislation that requires outmoded cesspools to be replaced with modern septic systems. As much as that would help some areas in the state, Jamestown officials and Jamestown Shores residents are concerned it could be counterproductive in some cases on the island if not handled properly.
Sullivan said that the state’s handling of septic systems and granting variances for small lots “does not involve any compromise with regard to environmental protection.” Some town officials and Shores residents dispute such analysis. They have been saying for years that the Shores subdivision is overcrowded and that its environment has been negatively impacted.
The development of the Shores area started in 1950. Originally intended to be a development of small seasonal cottages, it has grown into a year-round community with additions built on to the once small houses.
Town officials have tried to offset some impacts. “We have tried. We have been proactive,” Town Council President David Long has said repeatedly whenever there are reports of similar problems in the Shores. He again expressed the frustration at this month’s council meeting about trying to help Shores homeowners.
However, the town’s solicitors have repeatedly said — and Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch repeated on Nov. 14 — that the town has no authority to be involved in many aspects of private water well problems. Furthermore, Harsch said, if the town did take action, it could be subject to lawsuits.
“You could potentially get into difficulty as a town if you start making judgments like that. The town is in essence taking value from neighboring property,” Harsch said.
Instead, the town should do what it has done in the past, which is to forward the information to the state regulatory agencies. Residents affected could appeal to those agencies or pursue civil court relief if the source of pollution is identified, Harsch said.
The biggest problem, the solicitors and some state officials warn, is that the town or state will have to buy any land on which it has denied further development or has documented the existence of a polluted well. The town has been able to make tougher highgroundwater ordinances, but even these are not fully helpful because the DEM refuses to recognize all impacts of its decisions about septic systems.
Both state and town authorities have responsibilities over septic systems. The town says impacts of any construction, including septic systems, on a neighborhood have to be considered, but the state insists that it needs to consider only the impact of a septic system on the lot it is located on.
Sullivan reviewed the history of the state’s variances for eased regulations in regard to the location of septic systems in relationship to wells in the Albrektsons’ neighborhood. He reported eight applications for new systems in the past five years and 12 applications for repairs or upgrades in the past 10 years. He outlined each situation and concluded, “The department (DEM) tends to be more flexible with such applications, as long as overall risks are properly managed.” He said that repairs for failing cesspools, even though some need variances, resulted “in a significant improvement in the level of environmental protection.”
Sullivan contended that new technology is allowing for some variances but reported also that the new technology “is not recognized as eliminating or effectively compensating for all risks associated with reduced setbacks (distances between septic systems and wells).”
Sullivan also cited the 1996 Jamestown study that concluded that ground water in the Shores “has been adversely affected by high housing density.” He said the study identified high concentrations of nitrate as “the primary contaminant of concern.” Water containing such high amounts of nitrates “can cause interference with the absorption of oxygen into the bloodstream and is a potential health concern for infants and others at risk,” he said.
As a result of his investigation, DEM “is currently studying a proposed rule change,” Sullivan noted. The rule change is possible because of new technology, he said, even though he himself cited deficiencies in the new technology.
Saga status The Albrektsons’ efforts to resolve their contaminated well problem led them to the Statehouse and the Governor’s Manor. The status of their saga is that the state concluded it could not help them but would further study if the state could create some law that would help. Even so, some residents fear the new rule might make matters worse.
The Albrektsons have not met any of their goals, but they continue to try. They have been able to treat their well water, though they have not been able to identify the source. Council President Long told them he heard that it was a defect in their own septic system that caused the problem. The Albrektsons said that was not true, but it was the kind of unfounded report that compounds efforts to get resolution.
Town Council Vice President Julio DiGiando asked why the town does not have the responsibility to notify neighbors when any well fails. The Albrektsons said the lack of information about other well failures was a problem, and they are urging that a database be developed so that residents could know about them.
Town Solicitor Harsch said the town has no authority to collect such data. Giving out information about polluted wells would put the town in an unfavorable legal position, he said. He pointed out that Jamestown relies on the state health department for such services. State health department officials say that responsibility for private wells is not theirs. It falls soley on the property owner.
Charlotte Zarlengo, president of the Jamestown Shores Association, said Shores homeowners support the Albrektsons’ goals. She noted they have supported the town’s efforts on groundwater rules “as one step in the effort.”
She said the well contamination “is evidence of the existing and potential problems and the necessity for strict enforcement of the groundwater ordinance. Too often both DEM and the town board (zoning) allow exceptions or variances.”
She listed problems that “all pose potential environmental problems” as variances to setbacks from freshwater wetlands, dimensional variances from wells to septic systems, and approval of high groundwater table readings.
“Everyone in Jamestown is vulnerable. We all get our water from the same lens (source). Underground water flow moves and changes its path based upon rainfall and extent of pumping,” she said.
“It is the obligation of the town to do everything possible to locate the source of this (Albrektson) pollution and eliminate it. This health and safety issue, if not addressed, could potentially affect many residents of the town,” she said.