2006-03-09 / Front Page

Polluted water wells found on north end

By Dotti Farrington

Four private water wells on North Main Road in the landfill area are polluted, according to reports on 16 wells tested by the town as mandated by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Discussions about suing the town have been started among affected landowners.

The four contaminated wells are being retested to confirm the results and eliminate possibilities of laboratory or clerical errors. The households of the four contaminated wells have been advised not to drink, cook, or bathe with the water. At least one family has moved temporarily, pending further test results or well treatment.

One test showed unusual high findings of cobalt in the well of Phil and Norma Willis, of North Main Road, leaders of the North End Concerned Citizens, who live directly across the road from the landfill site. They said they are prepared to sue the town if the cobalt findings are confirmed. (See related stories on pages 1819.)

The three other wells were found to have high levels of lead, with one also having high levels of copper. Those can be treated to meet current safety standards, according to town officials and consultants. Extra tests are being conducted to confirm results and to try to pinpoint causes.

The homes affected are those of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Halstead, Dr. Michael Infantolino, and David King.

King was advised that his well also tested for "low pH groundwater (acidic water), low dissolved oxygen and low oxidation reduction potential (that) could cause leaching of metals present in the plumbing fixtures, pump and/or the bedrock." According to GZA GeoEnvironmental of Norwood, Mass., consultants to the town for about a decade on the landfill monitoring, closure of the site, and plans for constructing a highway barn there. The King well also tested positive for cobalt, but it was not recognized by GZA, and GZA did not caution him about that substance.

Other findings

Other metals found in the 16 wells were barium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, copper, lead, methyl-tert-butyl-ether, and toluene. The levels of those metals - except as noted in the four wells classified as polluted - were below standards that GZA terms as unacceptable. Some of the families were considering hiring independent testing laboratories to analyze their water.

The town was ordered by the DEM in December to test the area wells because of concerns about contamination at the landfill, and about its affecting ground water and area wells. Samples for the tests were taken in January, tested by GZA laboratories, and the findings were reported in early March. The samples were tested for 64 volatile organics and for 16 "landfill metals." No organic element was classified by GZA as being unsatisfactory or above standards.

GZA told the Halsteads, Infantolinos, and Kings not to drink their water, but told the Willises that the cobalt and "all detected constituents (in their well water) were below federal safe drinking water standards. As such, the sample from your water supply meets the drinking water requirements for the parameters tested."

According to the Willises, they immediately consulted GZA and several other authorities and learned that cobalt does not have a federal standard in this area, but it does in other regions of the country. The Willises said they learned that the reading for their water was up to 26 times the safe limit for cobalt. Experts they contacted did not or could not explain why the federal cobalt standard is not followed in New England, the Willises said.

About cobalt

Norma Willis said they are "terrified" about the findings, and about GZA's advice that the water is safe. They have not slept well since getting the report Thursday, and they are working to get more information about the cobalt, she said. There are three types of cobalt, including a radioactive form, she noted. Town officials reported that they were looking for a specialized laboratory that could not only retest for cobalt levels, but also define the exact type of cobalt that is involved at the landfill and at the Willises property.

Cobalt has been found in a test well on the northwestern end of the landfill site. Some residents have said that the area was once used by the U.S. Navy, but they have not been confirmed. The Willises theorize that cobalt leached into the ground water that visibly drains down the landfill slope into North Main Road and the wetland in front of their property.

At low levels, cobalt is part of vitamin B12, essential for good health. At high levels, it may harm the heart and lungs. Cobalt is used to produce alloys for aircraft engines, magnets, grinding and cutting tools, artificial hip and knee joints. Cobalt compounds are also used to color glass, ceramics, and paints. Radioactive cobalt is used for sterilizing medical equipment, radiation therapy, making "dirty" bombs, and for manufacturing plastics and irradiating food.

GZA and town officials said they do not know how cobalt got into the landfill.

Lawsuit talk

The Willises personally, and as part of the NECC leadership, told the town about a year ago that no one among them was interested in bringing lawsuits, as some officials claimed at that time. They said then that they did not want to sue, but wanted the town to take more responsibility for testing and for protecting the ground water at and around the old landfill.

Norma Willis said the test results has spurred her and her husband to consider the need for a lawsuit to protect themselves in view of the cobalt findings. She said she also believes that some NECC leaders are reviewing their stance on legal action because of the test results, and because some of GZA's responses seem not to reflect full concern about the extent of potential landfill pollution.

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