PLEASANT POINT, Maine — The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point will be seeking a state permit to allow it to provide a new source of water to the Passamaquoddy Water District, which serves the reservation and the city of Eastport.
The tribe has been engaged in a project in recent years to determine if a new source of public water can be developed for the region. The utility, which relies on a small supply of surface water, has struggled with poor water quality and an expensive treatment process.
The tribe’s engineering firm, Wright-Pierce, which conducted pump-out tests last fall, is drafting the permit application for the drinking water program of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The application will be submitted this week or next, according to Norman Laberge, the tribe’s staff engineer.
Laberge, tribal governor Clayton Cleaves and William Longfellow, the tribe’s water quality manager, discussed the project during a meeting at the tribal offices on Monday.
The tribe has been using 12 test wells since 2011 to monitor water quality and capacity of groundwater on 57 acres the tribe owns in Perry, land on which it pays taxes. Four of those wells are now being considered for production. The production wells could safely yield 250 gallons of water per minute, based on tests and computer modeling done by Wright-Pierce, Laberge said Monday.
“The question is: is 250 enough? The engineers think so,” said Laberge.
Last fall, however, several private wells were negatively affected when some pump-out tests were conducted. Perry residents subsequently voted 43-0 at a special town meeting in November to impose a 180-day moratorium on water exploration activities, and the town’s Board of Selectmen appointed a committee to draft a water ordinance. The panel is still working on drafting that ordinance.
“They knew they were going to impact the water table,” said Laberge, but the consultants mistakenly thought the private wells in the area were deep enough that they would not be affected. Residents in the area were not sufficiently notified of the tests in advance by Wright-Pierce, Laberge acknowledged. Those homeowners could be mitigated from the impact of the proposed water system by connecting to the distribution system, said Laberge.
The tribe is very concerned about “not intruding” on or affecting private wells in the area, said Cleaves. It wants to “safely move forward” with the project, he said.
Once the tribe submits its application to the state, it must negotiate with the water district, a separate nonprofit organization, for an agreement to sell water to the utility. “The big unknown is to sit down with the [Passamaquoddy Water District] and discuss how this would work out,” said Laberge. The district is guided by five trustees: three are members of the tribe, one is from Perry and one is from Eastport.
The tribe would have to build a treatment plant and run a water line about 1,000-1,500 feet to tap into the district’s existing water distribution system.
If everything progressed smoothly, it might take three to five years before the new source of water could be developed and supplying the two communities, said Laberge. He estimated the cost of the project going forward at $4-5 million. It would be financed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
“It’s certainly something that’s definitely needed,” said Cleaves.
The EPA has funded the tribe’s study and work so far, an expenditure of about $500,000 in the past four years, according to Laberge. The ultimate goal, he said, is to replace the district’s existing source of water.
“We want a cleaner, fresher” source of water that requires less chemical treatment, said Longfellow, who is serving on the Perry committee that is drafting the town’s water ordinance.
“I think from the meetings I have sat in … they are trying to do what’s best for the town,” said Longfellow. The panel wants to protect the water supply and wants the tribe to conduct its project “responsibly,” he said.
A feasibility study has not been conducted yet to project the cost of the water. However, Laberge noted that the tribe’s wells would require less treatment and reduce the amount of unused water. The district’s water is among the most costly in Maine, ranked in the top 10 most expensive, according to Laberge.
The Passamaquoddy Water District currently pumps 350 gallons per minute from its impoundment, according to Laberge. However, the utility only pumps water about 50-55 percent of the time and only 40-45 percent of that is drinkable. A lot of the water is lost in the process of treating it for contaminants, Laberge said.
Still, the district has struggled with water quality issues. It has been cited for 34 EPA drinking water regulation violations dating back to 2004, a ccording to data compiled by the EPA. Twenty-eight of the violations were health-related, and six were related to monitoring, reporting or other issues.
“The quality would be greatly improved” if the tribe’s wells are developed, said Laberge. “That’s been the whole motivation for the study.”
The tribe also is considering a small plant to bottle some water for sale locally.
“The biggest question I have … is that I want an understanding … how far the impact could possibly go,” said Karen Raye, chairman of the Perry Board of Selectmen, which was briefed by Wright-Pierce a few weeks ago. “I don’t have the answer yet.”
In other words, would the project affect homeowners with private wells within a 500-foot radius of the wells or within a one-mile radius, asked Raye. “I just don’t know the answer to that question.”
Nancy Sili, superintendent of the Passamaquoddy Water District, said she attended the recent briefing by Wright-Pierce but declined comment on the company’s findings. “Nothing at this point,” she said, “because it’s so preliminary.”
“Obviously, we’ll be watching the process,” said Eastport City Manager Larry Post, who has not been briefed on the status of the project. He declined further comment, saying he is “not in the loop enough.”