Maine ranks third highest in the nation in the number of reported drinking water safety violations in public schools over the past decade, according to a survey released Friday by The Associated Press.
Click here to view the report of Maine schools.
Click here to view the full report of all states in Excel spreadsheet format.
With 417 reports filed with the Maine Drinking Water Program between 1998 and 2008, Maine trails only California and Ohio in the total number of violations reported during the survey period.
On Friday, state officials said water in Maine schools is safe to drink and that the high volume of violations reflects the state’s stringent regulation of public drinking water supplies.
The violations in Maine occurred at 152 small rural schools that have their own wells instead of being connected to a larger municipal water system. The vast majority of violations are attributed to the presence of coliform bacteria in routine water samples collected at the schools and submitted for testing in accordance with state and federal regulations.
Coliform bacteria, which typically live and reproduce in the digestive tracts of animals, are common in the environment and generally are not harmful. Their presence in drinking water usually indicates a problem with the treatment system or the pipes through which the water runs, according to the Web site of the federal Envi-ronmental Protection Agency.
One dangerous type of coliform bacteria is Escherichia coli, or E. coli. E. Coli indicates direct contact with fecal matter and can cause serious illness in humans, including severe diarrhea and vomiting. E. coli contamination was not specified in the AP survey, but a state water official said Friday that E. coli was present in 10 of the 417 violations reported in Maine.
Nonetheless, officials here were quick to reassure the public on Friday that water in Maine schools is safe to drink.
At the Maine Drinking Water Program, which regulates public water supplies, director Roger Crouse said one reason so many violations are filed here is that Maine has a more rigorous testing schedule for public water systems than many other states.
Some states test for bacteria only once a year, in compliance with federal requirements, he said, but since 2000 Maine has required public systems to test at least quarterly, and in some cases every month.
Any water supply that serves 25 or more people for 60 days or more per year is classified as a public water system and subject to state and federal regulation. Of Maine’s approximately 700 public schools, 262 maintain their own public water systems; each has a state-certified operator, typically a school employee with other job duties, who is responsible for routine testing and maintenance.
“We are working with [school] systems to help them avoid violations,” Crouse said. “The reality is we have improved our process in the past few years and are committed to our mission of protecting public health.”
At the Maine Rural Water Association, which provides technical support to rural water systems, Deputy Executive Director Kirsten Hebert also defended the state’s performance.
“This report speaks to the fact that Maine requires more of its water systems. We have more a preventive system in place that catches problems early.” The number of reported violations in Maine is “a high number, not necessarily a bad number. It’s an opportunity to go and research before something bad happens,” she said.
The list of Maine schools reporting violations since 1998 is lengthy. But in 2008, it included schools in Belfast, Hermon, Unity, East Machias, Carmel, Danforth, Frenchville, Milo, Lee, Hampden and Robbinston. Several schools are listed more than once. The presence of coliform bacteria is given as the reason for the violation in all these cases.
“Coliform is simply an indicator of decaying matter,” Crouse said. “It’s all over the place.” A cracked pipe or a dirty glove left near a wellhead can be the source, he said.
When a water sample tests positive for coliform, the next step is to test it for E. coli.
“The vast majority are negative,” Crouse said. Of the 417 violations reported in the AP survey, he said, just 10 were positive for E. coli. In the event that E. coli is confirmed, schools are required to notify parents and cut off access to school water until the problem is resolved.
At the Hermon School Department, building, transportation and grounds supervisor Larry Dearborn acknowledged on Friday that coliform bacteria were detected in the water supply at the middle school three months running in 2008.
“We went through a major renovation, and the contractor hit the well,” he said. “Surface water was getting into the well.” After repeated efforts to isolate and repair the break in the well casing, Dearborn said, “the cheapest and easiest thing was a chlorine pump.” The small chlorination system was installed by a local water quality company and the coliform issue disappeared.
“The state worked very well with us,” Dearborn said. “They’re the experts on water.”
The second most common violation listed in the report is elevated levels of lead and copper. Testing for these elements and other toxic metals is required only every three years, but when an elevation is detected, more frequent testing is implemented.
Harmful levels of lead and copper are almost never naturally present in Maine water supplies, Crouse said, but the metals may leach out of water pipe systems. Lead solder is no longer in use, but it remains in place in many of Maine’s older schools. Frequent flushing of the water system reduces levels, Crouse said.
Arsenic and radon from natural deposits and nitrates related to fertilizer applications are also listed as violations in the report, but rarely.
Crouse said all violations listed in the AP report have now been resolved, but six schools are currently responding to new reports of coliform bacteria in their well water.