Army Corps pledges action on tainted wells

Posted Nov. 30, 2009, at 10:54 p.m.

MACHIASPORT, Maine — There were a lot more questions than answers at a public meeting Monday night, but a dozen Machiasport residents got what they were looking for from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection: a vow to begin action on an alternative water supply.

For 16 years, the Army Corps has been providing bottled water and filtration devices to four homes that have unacceptable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in their private wells.

The chemical solvent was used to clean early warning radar equipment on Howard Mountain, Miller Mountain and a third transmitter location used by the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s. The contamination was discovered in 1994 when fuel tanks at Air Force housing were being excavated.

During the process, it was discovered the tanks had been leaking and nearby wells were tested. The leaking fuel was found, which was expected, but also found was the TCE contamination.

“I started working on this project 15 years ago and I never expected we’d still be talking about it,” said Iver McLeod of the DEP.

Despite years of studies — federal, state and local — dozens of town meetings, and state legislation that would allow the creation of a water district, the affected homeowners felt they were no closer to a solution.

“I still don’t drink the water, just in case the filters have a hiccup,” Jeff Huntley said. He described the difficulty of having water coolers around his home and dealing with lifting and replacing the heavy 5-gallon bottles. “It sucks,” he said.

But officials from the Army Corps said that recently some of the affected homeowners indicated their willingness to look at an alternative water supply, and they called Monday night’s meeting to begin that process.

Army Corps project manager Robert Leitch explained at Monday’s gathering that when the filtration was put in place, the affected homeowners balked at a permanent solution, which centered on abandoning their existing wells and included restrictions in their deeds.

Residents asked Leitch and other officials a number of questions, including: Could the water system from Downeast Correctional Facility serve the affected families? Where would a new well be located? Who would pay for the system, both during construction of a water system and afterward? How intense has monitoring of the contamination plume been? Is the contamination spreading?

Leitch admitted that it has been frustrating not to be able to provide detailed answers for residents.

Meanwhile, residents said, they have watched their property values plummet. Residents said they were frustrated with the entire process.

“You are the third person from the Army Corps that we have dealt with,” Huntley said. “Just when we think we are going to get fresh water, one of you leaves. We can study this and study this and study this. We just need to get fresh water.”

Leitch said the project has been “very difficult. We struggle with it, quite frankly.”

McLeod added, “This situation — TCE in fractured bedrock, down a peninsula, 12 miles from the closest water source, is a perfect storm. It has everything wrong with it.”

Leitch said the next step in the process would be to discuss an alternative water supply with the four affected homeowners. Then a feasibility study would look at the cost and efficiency of that supply and other options. This part of the process will take several months, he said.

McLeod said that once a plan is agreed upon, a strict timeline would be established.

“We hope within a year we will have an agreement about what the remedy should be,” McLeod said.

“This process needs to be transparent,” Sandra Prescott said. Her home is on the edge of the contaminated area. “All the parties need to work together. The uncertainty and dragging your feet are affecting our town.”

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