2006-04-06 / Front Page

North enders seek solesource aquifer designation

By Dotti Farrington

Members of the North End Concerned Citizens are petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate Conanicut Island a solesource aquifer.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said the designation would have importance only in situations in which the town might seek federal funds for projects. He said the town has not applied for any federal funds for the town landfill closure and the related plan to build a town highway garage there.

The town's 10-year capital projects plan, released last month by Keiser, includes a notation that the town may seek state and federal funds for the dual closurehighway barn work. That notation represents a carry-over from previous years and is not part of the town's current expectations about funding work at the landfill site, Keiser said.

Douglas Heath, co-ordinator in the New England EPA Region for Rhode Island for the wellhead protection and source water assessment programs, is processing the north enders' petition. Heath said the sole-source aquifer designation would have no bearing on work at the Jamestown landfill because the town has no pending application for federal funds. The designation would bring the EPA into planning if the town were to seek federal monies, he noted.

Heath said the designation would apply to any other town projects for which federal funds were sought. A secondary result of a sole aquifer designation is the increased public awareness of the nature and value of local ground water resources, he pointed out. Local residents and businesses may be more willing to protect an aquifer through local action if they learn their drinking water originates from a vulnerable underground supply, according to Heath.

The EPA has designated 72 communities in the U.S., including 15 in New England, as solesource aquifers. Of the 15, three, including Block Island, are in Rhode Island. The Safe Drinking Water Act gives the EPA the authority to designate aquifers that are the sole or principal drinking water source for at least 50 percent of the population for an area, and that, if contaminated, would create a significant hazard to public health.

Ellen Winsor, a leader of the north end citizens' group, told the Town Council last month in regard to the group's efforts for the designation. She said the NECC wants federal officials to review planned development on the island and to raise public consciousness about protecting ground water and preventing contamination of the island's aquifer.

"Ultimately the amount of fresh water available and its quality are directly related to land-use activities. Land management is especially important. We seek sole-source aquifer status to protect the bedrock water now and in the future, to protect our private wells, to raise awareness of not only all who live on the island but also those who will visit seasonally and who will, in the future, choose to live, develop and do business on this fragile aquifer," Winsor stated.

In discussing the circumstances under which the designation would apply, Heath praised the town's current work on preserving open space through farmland preservation. He said that undertaking would not be covered by the sole-source designation because it does not involve any construction, and it is intended to deter development.

Heath is awaiting letters from Jamestown officials to confirm water supply data for the island, and from North Kingstown and Newport about the role they might or might not serve were Jamestown to need water due to problems with its water supply. Heath has also been advised that Dr. Michael Sullivan, director of the state Department of Environmental Management, has promised the NECC that he would write a letter about the island's water situation.

According to the NECC's petition, based on town documents, 57 percent of island residents are on private water wells and live outside the area supplied by the municipal water supply, and the well users rely solely on ground water through wells drilled into fractured bedrock. The reservoir water also is supplemented by bedrock aquifer community wells, the petition says.

The DEM currently is evaluating the latest plans for closing former Jamestown landfill and construction of a new town highway barn for the Department of Public Works. That report is not expected before the end of the month.

NECC members and other neighbors of the landfill were originally concerned about monitoring plans for post-closure and their concerns were increased a year ago, when the town began to study the possibility of building the garage at that location and further disturbing the long decaying garbage buried there. The two issues have split townspeople over how to proceed with each concern.

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