Sangerville water tests safe; illness questions persist

Posted June 12, 2009, at 7:45 p.m.

EAST SANGERVILLE, Maine — Although water samples from a Sangerville gravel pit where sludge was applied in the late 1990s recently tested within the parameters of safe drinking water standards, residents aren’t too comforted.

About eight families now want the Department of Health and Welfare to investigate why so many people in their East Sangerville neighborhood have had similar illnesses, including memory problems and muscle disorders.

One resident’s drinking well had tested high for lead, and tests showed that two of the residents had elevated concentrations of toxic metals in their urine.

“There’s still that question mark hanging over our heads, you know, something’s not right here,” said Terry Palin, whose husband, Edward Palin, suffers from memory and cognitive problems. “There are just too many red flags and too many coincidences.”

On their behalf, Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said Friday that he has asked Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the state’s public health director, to investigate the matter.

Reached for comment Friday afternoon, Mills said, “We’re in the process of looking into it.”

The residents, who came down with the symptoms in 2006 at about the same time groundwater monitoring at the Barrett Gravel Pit ceased, thought the sludge used to revegetate the pit may have been the cause of their illnesses.

The Department of Environmental Protection had permitted sludge applications to revegetate areas in the pit, which is situated on a sand and gravel aquifer about 400 feet from Black Stream. The pit owners had met the state limit of open areas, and to expand they had to cover the mined-out areas with a vegetative layer.

To do that, the DEP allowed mill sludge from Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s former Winslow mill to be mixed on-site with sand and a commercial fertilizer to make an artificial topsoil in 1996. A few years later, the DEP allowed the Anson-Madison Sanitary District to fill another plot in the gravel pit with an experimental mixture of sewage sludge, commercial fertilizer and bioash from the Madison area. No liner was required for either application.

A DEP official said earlier this year that the project initially contaminated groundwater with heavy metals released through chemical reaction but that subsequent monitoring showed the contamination had improved. He also noted that water does not flow uphill. The gravel pit is located in a low spot on the terrain while many of the homes are on a much higher elevation.

Based on the residents’ concerns, the DEP re-sampled the existing wells last month. Samples were analyzed by Maine’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory and by an independent laboratory in Portsmouth, N.H. All of the materials found in the groundwater at the pit were within the drinking water standards and no lead or mercury was found, according to Mark Hyland, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. He said Friday that iron and manganese concentrations were observed in the samples but were “far below” the historic highs.

Hyland said the DEP also had sampled a resident’s well located near the pit. That water had elevated levels of arsenic and a slightly elevated chloride level, but no other issues. Arsenic commonly exceeds the drinking water standard throughout Maine and often results from natural goechemical weathering of bedrock, and there-fore all well owners should have their wells tested yearly, he said.

At least three families who had their drinking water tested late last month by a private laboratory learned this week that all were within the satisfactory range.

“If their wells have all come back clean and our monitoring showed that we don’t think their wells were affected by contaminants, then they need to look at some other things,” Hyland said. “Water isn’t the only thing you can get sick from.” He supported the residents’ efforts to seek help from the Department of Health and Hu-man Services.

Although he said it was “comforting” that his drinking water tested satisfactory, resident Brian Campbell still believes the gravel pit contamination could have caused the problems.

“The DEP should have tested the wells in the neighborhood back when the groundwater was first contaminated,” Campbell said. “It doesn’t mean that our well water couldn’t have been affected by the contaminated plume that occurred at the pit after the application and then it cleared up over the years. We all began having the symptoms about three years ago.”

Nor is Palin totally convinced that the water wasn’t the problem. “‘I think there are too many red flags as far as people within this area of town with similar health issues,” she said, adding that residents deserve some answers.

Campbell agreed. “I’d like to see someone from the state come in and try to figure out why nearly every house is affected within the gravel pit area,” he said.

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