PERRY, Maine — Tammy Pearson was getting ready to go to work one day when she noticed the water pressure in her home was low, so he told her husband and headed off for work.
The discovery set off a chain of events — work on their water system that cost them more than $1,000. They eventually determined their well had gone dry.
The Pearsons finally contacted a well drilling contractor. As it turns out, the contractor had been working nearby, in sight of their home, performing tests for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point on land containing exploratory wells. The tests involved pumping thousands of gallons of water from the tribal wells to determine their capacity.
“Apparently what happened is they pumped our well dry,” by lowering the water volume in the underlying aquifer, Pearson said Wednesday.
The Pearsons have water again, but it’s cloudy and they’re not drinking it. And they are out money they could ill afford to spend.
They were not the only ones impacted, either.
A neighbor, Robert Humphries, suffered problems with his well.
Herb McPhail, a dairy farmer who lives roughly four miles almost due east, also was affected. The water level in McPhail’s well is 27 feet below normal, he said.
The Perry Board of Selectmen, which discussed the issue at a meeting Friday night, is still receiving reports of people who are experiencing problems with their wells — low water level or poor water quality.
At least four other residents have had well problems, according to Selectman Scott MacNichol.
The board met in executive session for just over five minutes to finalize a letter to Marvin Cling, the tribe’s environmental director. The board voted unanimously in open session to approve the letter. Chairman Karen Raye declined to disclose the letter until it had been communicated to Cling.
The selectmen already have retained an attorney to determine if the tribe’s tests violated Perry’s land use ordinance, said Raye.
The tribe does not plan to compensate people whose wells were negatively impacted, Cling made clear in a phone interview Wednesday. However, it is helping gather information to relay to the Indian Health Service, which may compensate them.
The Indian Health Service is a federal agency that provides health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The tribe is using federal grant money in an attempt to find a source of water. The reservation currently is served by the Passamaquoddy Water District, which is not connected to the tribe and serves the city of Eastport as well. The water district has a troubled history of problems with its water quality and has been cited numerous times by the state program that oversees public water utilities.
The recent tests were meant to assess the capacity of the tribe’s exploratory wells, which are located on property separate from the reservation, as well as water quality. It will be a few months before the company finishes compiling and analyzing the data from the tests, said Darrin Lary, a project manager for Wright-Pierce.
“Ideally, we would like to bring this well water (through the water district main line) and provide quality drinking water for the community on the reservation and Eastport,” said Cling.
The town’s code enforcement officer issued a stop work order at the end of the 10-day tests last month. The basis of the order was that officials believed the tests were adversely affecting neighboring properties.
A few days later, on Oct. 1, the Board of Selectmen convened a meeting and listened to complaints from several residents about impacts to their wells. Cling attended the meeting, and the tribe also was represented by two employees of the engineering firm it retained, Wright-Pierce.
The code enforcement officer told tribal officials they did not have required permits and were in violation of the town’s land use ordinance because abutting landowners were not notified by town officials.
The ordinance did not apply to the well testing process, contended Cling.
“I think our contractors looked at everything out there to see how much notification we were supposed to give,” said Cling.
Wells that were monitored during the tests were both on tribal property and non-tribal property, said Cling.
However, Pearson and McPhail maintained that the only wells that were monitored were those that had some connection to the tribe.
According to data compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — data based on violations reported by state officials — the Passamaquoddy Water District has been cited for 34 EPA drinking water regulation violations dating back to 2004. Twenty-eight of the violations were health-related, and six were related to monitoring, reporting or other issues. The water district was cited for three health-related violations involving treatment technique this year
“Most of their violations … dealt with disinfection by-products,” explained Roger Crouse, director of the drinking water program administered by the state Department of Health and Human Services division of environmental health.
Residual chlorine in the water distribution system combines with natural organic matter occurring in the surface water to form byproducts that are carcinogenic, according to Crouse. “There’s a limit on what’s considered a safe level,” he said.
“I would say they have more than average violations … I know they have had enough that we’ve had administrative orders with them, and we’ve been concerned about them. Most water utilities are not in the situation they are in.”
The Passamaquoddy Water District is in the “top 10 percent” of water utilities that have had violations in the past 10 years, said Crouse.
Nancy Seeley, superintendent of the water district, conceded it has struggled with water quality issues. Improvements to the water treatment plant — at a cost of about $550,000 — will begin in November and should be completed in 120 days, she said.
“It’s going to help with the water quality issues,” said Seeley. “We’re dealing with a source of water that’s not pristine.” The district’s small impoundment and water treatment plant are located not far from the Pearsons’ home.
The Pearsons were told to submit invoices to tribal officials or its engineering firm for the work they had done, and they did. “At this point, I don’t know if anyone is going to help us,” said Pearson.
“We’ve spent over $1,000 that we didn’t need to spend,” she said.
“That’s all I’m asking for,” said Pearson, “is just to make right what happened. We need to be compensated.”