East Sangerville’s troubled water

Posted May 01, 2009, at 7:02 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:14 p.m.

SANGERVILLE, Maine — Several East Sangerville residents are worried that the memory problems, muscle disorders and other illnesses they are experiencing could stem from water contaminated by an experimental sludge-spreading operation in their neighborhood that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection authorized in the late 1990s.

The Douty Hill Road residents all live within about a mile of Barrett Pit, a gravel pit that had areas filled with paper mill sludge and ash in 1996 and sewage sludge, commercial fertilizer and bioash in 1999.

The fact that the materials were deposited in the pit without a liner on a sand and gravel aquifer about 400 feet from Black Stream has residents wondering whether that’s the source of their troubles. At least five area residents have symptoms they believe could be related to their well water.

A DEP official said the project initially contaminated groundwater with heavy metals released through chemical reaction but noted that testing showed the contamination later dissipated and there is no way to determine a direct link to residents’ health problems.

Not until March, when neighbors began talking to one another about their illnesses, did it strike them as odd that they had similar symptoms, including memory and cognitive problems and muscle disorders. Also odd was the fact that most came down with the symptoms about three years ago, the same year groundwater monitoring at the operation ceased.

One resident’s water well tested high for lead in December 2008 and medical tests showed two people had elevated concentrations of toxic metals in their urine.

“I think almost every house has had health issues within a mile radius of Black Stream,” Brian Campbell, 48, said in early March during a meeting of eight neighbors who had gathered to discuss the matter. Campbell noted that at least four other residents in the East Sangerville area — some within the mile radius and others out-side it — have similar symptoms. There are about 20 homes in the immediate area.

“We think the gravel pit mixture may have affected our health,” he said.

DEP issues permits

Told of the residents’ concerns, Rick Haffner, the DEP’s projects manager, said he doubted the gravel pit had any connection to their symptoms. Because of the health concerns, however, he said the department plans to re-sample the existing wells this month for lead and other heavy metals.

Haffner recalled that the original permit for revegetating an area of the pit was issued in 1996 to Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s former Winslow mill. The mill hired New England Organics, or NEO, of Unity and Portland to carry out the project. About 20,000 cubic yards of mill sludge was mixed on-site with sand and a commercial fertilizer to make an artificial topsoil. The permit did not require groundwater monitoring or a liner, Haffner said.

After the mill permanently closed in June 1998, the DEP transferred the license in May 1999 to the Anson-Madison Sanitary District. The district hired NEO to fill another gravel pit plot with an experimental mixture of sewage sludge, commercial fertilizer and bioash from the Madison area. About 2,400 cubic yards of sanitary district sludge was applied in the late fall of 1999.

While the district’s permit required no liner, it did require monitoring wells because the district treated sanitary wastewater, in addition to industrial wastewater from Madison Paper Co.

When the test wells were installed, it was discovered that the paper mill sludge from the earlier project had been applied excessively, Haffner said. He said NEO was ordered to remove some of the material but did so before it received official written approval. The DEP directed the sanitary district to return and assess the layers of materials on both areas, which NEO did. A letter of warning was issued to the district but no fines were levied, Haffner said.

Resident and contractor Gerald Jackson was hired by NEO to do the remediation work. He recalled that some of the paper mill sludge was more than 2 feet thick in places when it should have been 6 to 8 inches.

This prompted town officials in Sangerville to notify the DEP by letter in 2001 that they were concerned about the water quality and the excess spreading at the pit. The officials also worried that additional dumping before the monitoring was concluded could further compromise water quality. In a letter, the DEP assured the town it was monitoring the project.

“This was done as a research project with the cooperation of the DEP. There was nothing shady about it, and I think we proved there was no long-lasting impact,” James Ecker, NEO general manager, said this week. The groundwater improved enough to discontinue the monitoring and the project demonstrated the long-term benefits of revegetating this kind of “disturbed” land, he said.

The experimental mixture was of interest to the DEP because it was a beneficial use of short paper fiber and reduced or eliminated the need to strip topsoil, said Dick Behr, DEP’s project engineer.

“We wanted to try to see what would happen when we used a combination of paper mill sludge and a commercial product that was actually a biosolid from a wastewater treatment plant,” he recalled recently. It would not have been economical to require a liner, he said.

Similar manufactured topsoil remediation projects have been carried out in Maine, including on a field in Leeds, as well as throughout the country, Haffner said. He wasn’t sure whether any other Maine projects were completed over sand and gravel aquifers.

Ecker confirmed that while other similar projects have been conducted, the composition was not exactly the same as that used at the pit, which he said was a relatively small project. He said all mixtures must be approved by the DEP. “You just can’t go out and spread anything you want. It’s never been that way,” he said.

Behr said the DEP was most concerned initially about the leaching of nitrogen-containing compounds at the pit. What happened instead is that there was significant leaching of organic material, which changed the geochemistry of the site. The monitoring showed that over time, levels of arsenic went up and levels of dissolved oxygen went down. The project also released a lot of iron and manganese during the spreading of the biosolid, Behr said.

“We know that when those geochemical conditions are created, it can release the naturally occurring arsenic, iron and manganese,” he said. The elevated levels of iron, manganese and arsenic are believed to have come from the natural aquifer system, he said, although he didn’t rule out the possibility that some of it came from the mixture itself.

John M. Peckenham, director of the Maine Water Resources Research Institute, who was a consultant for New England Organics around 2004 when discussions were held about Barrett Pit, said the material used to reclaim the pit released compounds that, along with the action of native bacteria, consumed all of the available oxygen in the groundwater. This in turn, caused arsenic, iron and manganese to become soluble and mobile in the groundwater.

Monitoring ceased in 2006, when the groundwater started to recover and the DEP felt no more useful information could be gained, according to Haffner.

Residents’ health problems

Around that same time, Campbell and his neighbors found their health failing. Campbell suffered from memory problems and muscle pains, leading to an initial diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. A neighbor, Gerald Jackson’s wife, Regina, 67, complained of similar problems.

Arnold Chase, who died in October at age 69, began suffering from dementia about three years ago, said his widow, Dyann. The couple had moved to Sangerville about eight years ago.

“He never had any problem with dementia until after we moved up here,” Chase said of her late husband, who also had emphysema. There were no mental problems in his family history, she added. “Why did he come down with it at the same time others did on the road?” she asked. Chase said her husband had blamed his mili-tary service for his health problems.

Edward Palin, 61, who has lived in East Sangerville for 16 years and has memory and cognitive problems, also blamed them on his military service until he learned the plight of others in the neighborhood. He has no family history of mental problems. “There’s just too many people in the area that have the same symptoms,” Palin said.

After months of doctoring, extensive testing and different diagnoses, Campbell visited Dr. Sean McCloy at Maine Integrative Wellness in South Portland. McCloy has served as a commentator on “Mystery ER,” a Discovery Channel Health Network program.

Campbell learned from McCloy that he did not have MS but had elevated levels of lead in his urine. His level was 6.6 micrograms per gram when the acceptable range is 5 micrograms per gram, he said. He was treated and his symptoms disappeared.

Campbell persuaded Regina Jackson to see McCloy, and tests showed her lead level at 12 micrograms per gram. She also had an elevated level of mercury: 11 micrograms per gram compared to an acceptable range of 4 micrograms per gram. Like Campbell, her symptoms subsided after treatment.

Contacted by telephone last month, McCloy said he found it unusual that several residents in the same neighborhood would have similar health problems. He said the symptoms could be consistent with arsenic, lead and manganese in the body. “All these different heavy metals are toxic to the brain; they’re called toxic heavy metals for that very reason,” McCloy said.

The heavy metals can induce a condition called toxic encephalopathy, or damage to the central nervous system, according to McCloy.

The symptoms of toxic encephalopathy depend on the individual, McCloy said. Some people might have very subtle symptoms such as mild fatigue and headaches, or more serious symptoms, including memory loss, ringing in the ears, nerve pains, muscle aches and pains, or weakness, he said. Some have more systemic symp-toms — such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation and rashes — and sometimes an autoimmune condition develops later, he noted. Others go on to develop exquisite sensitivity to other kinds of chemicals, he said.

“The elevated concentrations of compounds such as arsenic, lead and mercury are certainly a cause of concern,” Peckenham said. The likely sources of exposure to toxic metals are food, water and the workplace, he said.

Since the concern here is water, he said there are three possibilities for the exposure: Some of the metals could be occurring naturally in the rock and the exposures are wholly unrelated to the gravel pit reclamation; the water recharging the bedrock and the wells was affected by the gravel pit mixture and caused some metals to become more mobile; or the gravel pit project directly contaminated the wells.

Water not tested for lead

Haffner said lead was not one of the metals tested in the groundwater at the gravel pit because it was not a matter of concern.

“Lead is not that mobile in soil or groundwater — it’s not normally bound up in any of that natural soil film complex with iron and manganese and the other minerals normally,” he said. “I would be real surprised if that project was responsible for lead getting into people’s wells.”

Behr agreed. One of the likelier sources of lead is from the plumbing itself because lead rarely moves very far in groundwater even when a site has contaminants that are leaching from the waste into it, he said. Conditions have to be just right for the lead to stay in the water, he said.

The Jacksons’ home was built in 1995 with water pipes made with nonlead solder. Campbell lives on his family’s old homestead. While Campbell has not had his well tested, the Jacksons’ well tested high for lead. The test result for lead should have been less than 0.5 parts per billion but came back 3.2 parts per billion, accord-ing to Gerald Jackson, 69, who said the water was tested by an accredited laboratory. All other tests conducted on his well water were within the acceptable level, he said. Jackson used to drink the well water before he installed an osmosis system to rid it of lead, and he suspected his body had a way to eliminate lead since he had none of the symptoms.

Palin and Chase have not tested their wells.

“I think the state should test all these wells within a mile radius of the gravel pit, Black Stream and the gravel pit,” Campbell said.

Jackson added that the DEP also should check Black Stream to see whether there is surface runoff contamination since the gravel pit area has washed out in heavy rainstorms.

Even with further testing, it would be difficult to establish a connection, according to Peckenham.

“Linking environmental conditions to human health is difficult because there are many variables and the path from cause to effect is often hard to discover,” Peckenham said.

Added complications in this situation include the lack of background water quality measurements and an understanding of other factors that can affect a person’s health, such as diet, genetics, housing and work exposure, he said.

Other sources to blame?

The fact the East Sangerville area has significant agricultural activity could change water quality, according to Behr. For example, he noted Greenville Steam Co. has been permitted to spread wood ash on some acreage in the area.

“I’m not telling you there’s any impact from the agriculture activity, but that’s the first thing that jumps out at me,” Behr said. “By no means do I tell you this to downplay that this permitted activity caused groundwater contamination. I’m not denying that.”

Ecker said his firm had applied wood ash in the area with the DEP’s approval. He said wood ash has been land-applied for more than 25 years with no problems. “It’s a long-standing, successful recycling program,” he said.

Behr said there are many influences on the quality of groundwater, which generally flows from the southwest to the northeast toward Black Stream and on to the Piscataquis River. The residents’ homes are located mostly to the east of the gravel pit.

“When we know the water is moving towards that brook, it’s extremely unlikely there is any relationship between the gravel pit reclamation activity and the water that they would draw from their water supply,” Behr said. “It seems like a long shot.”

Greg Stewart, data section chief for the United States Geological Survey in Maine, said basic physics shows that water flows downward. There is no way to know, however, whether a fracture sends water another direction when it reaches bedrock, he said.

There are no maps to show accurately how the groundwater flows since it is so complicated, he noted.

Stewart said layers of clay and different sediment types can cause changes in the flow and how groundwater is affected. He said toxins, if they are involved, can change depending on the concentration. Some could be trapped in the subsurface and bond to the soil and others could change with oxygen.

“It’s unlikely there’s major problems if they did the science right and they followed their standard procedures. It’s not that likely that they’re going to make gross mistakes,” Stewart said.

Peckenham said groundwater in rock flows in fractures that control its direction.

“On a large scale, groundwater tends to flow in parallel with the slope of the land surface; on a small scale groundwater can move along a very twisted course,” he said. He suggested testing is needed to map how groundwater connects to the local wells.

Campbell said he doesn’t like the speculation; he wants the DEP to retest the pit, and test the private wells in the area and Black Stream.

That’s a good idea, according to McCloy. “I do think it’s very curious that this small group, [a] geologically close group of people, would all develop very similar symptoms especially in close proximity to that gravel pit, so I definitely think either the state or an environmental consulting firm should do some testing.”

Peckenham also thought the situation is troubling. He recommended that all drinking water wells within half a mile of the pit be tested and that anyone with unsafe water use bottled water for drinking and cooking.

For Campbell, who grew up in the area and had no major health concerns before 2006-2007, the gravel pit seems to be the likely source. “I believe this needs to be researched and brought to conclusion in order to protect the health of the residents and future generations,” he said.

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