ORONO, Maine — The Orono-Veazie Water District has reduced the levels of a disinfection byproduct linked to cancer and other health problems, but a small, vocal group of consumers from Veazie is calling for it to do more.
At issue is the level of trihalomethanes, or THMs, a group of four chemical compounds, including chloroform, that form when chlorine used to kill bacteria reacts with naturally occurring organic matter, such as decaying leaves, algae and human or animal waste.
THMs build up over time, so the longer the water remains in the water distribution system, the higher the levels become. Exposure occurs not only from drinking water containing the compounds but also from showering or bathing in it.
The EPA says that some people who drink water containing THMs over many years could experience liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and increased risk of cancer.
Because exposure can lead to an increased risk of cancer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 80 parts per billion for THMs in public drinking water supplies and requires quarterly testing for them.
The water district’s 2011 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, the most recent available, showed that the THMs limit had been exceeded by 9 ppb in the last quarter of that year.
Water District Superintendent Dennis Cross said Thursday that the limit also was exceeded during the first three quarters of 2012. A Maine Drinking Water Program document detailing the district’s THM levels for 2011 through 2013 showed levels at 89.2 ppb, 84 ppb and 88.9 ppb for the first three quarters of 2012.
The results led to a notice of noncompliance from the Maine Drinking Water Program and a subsequent consent order requiring the district to hire a consultant, come up with a plan to address the problem and complete the necessary improvements. The district is working with Wright-Pierce to address the problem, he said.
Cross said progress has been made. The test results for the most recent four quarters show the district under the EPA limit, though the numbers are still high.
Maine Drinking Water Program Director Roger Crouse confirmed Thursday that violations had occurred during those four quarters and that the district is now in compliance.
Veazie resident Joan Perkins is among the water district customers who are demanding that the district do more in terms of notifying the public, testing for THMs and remediation. She said Wednesday that she and other residents learned of the dangers associated with THMs in November, when University of Maine nursing students involved in a public health project made a presentation about them for Veazie town officials.
The future nurses’ findings were disturbing to Perkins, who is among a handful of residents who have been outspoken critics of the water district and the Veazie Sewer District.
“We actually presented a list of demands to the Orono-Veazie Water District [during a trustees meeting earlier this month],” Perkins said.
The page-long list includes demands in three areas, namely notification for when THMs exceed the EPA limit and improved transparency with regard to posting test results, agendas and minutes and progress reports; testing beyond state and federal requirements; and remediation in the way of subsidies for home water filters for those worried about water quality and safety, grants and loans to support system improvements and the establishment of goals that exceed Maine Drinking Water Program mandates, to name a few.
She and a few others from Veazie also have taken their concerns to the Orono Town Council and the Veazie School Committee, which she said has agreed to test water samples taken inside the school independently to see what the THM levels are.
Perkins said the only water testing point in Veazie is the fire hydrant outside the school and that samples are taken after the lines have been flushed, which she believes skews the results.
“Well that’s immediately after flushing, which refreshes all of the water in the line, so that indicates that there’s a real problem. It’s actually probably higher,” she said, calling the practice “disingenuous.” It also makes her wonder what the levels are at locations where the water flows are low.
Cross said sampling is done quarterly at two locations that have been mutually agreed upon by the district and Maine Drinking Water Program. He also said that flushing is one way to reduce the age of the water that’s in the pipes.
“It’s considered an accepted method of treatment or process to get your THMs down,” he said. “It’s common knowledge among the regulatory people that this is what we’re doing.”
Perkins said she and the small group she is working with also want more immediate notification of elevated THM levels than the annual notice the EPA requires.
“It does no good to tell me in September that I’ve been drinking contaminated water for a year. The exposure’s already happened,” she said.
The testing point in Orono is at the University of Maine’s Memorial Union. Spokeswoman Margaret Nagle on Thursday released the following statement on UMaine’s behalf: “The University of Maine has been in contact with the Orono-Veazie Water District and is aware that it is currently in compliance for 2013. UMaine will continue that communication going forward.”
Crouse said elevated THMs are not uncommon. The state has entered about 15 consent agreements with Maine’s 150 municipal water supplies since 2006.
“They’re all over [the state],” he said, including districts based in Fort Fairfield, Mars Hill, Newport, Eastport, Milo, Canton, Southwest Harbor and Damariscotta, to name a few. “It tends to be small systems that experience this. … This is a tough nut to crack.”
In most cases, he said, it’s taken water districts years to bring their THM levels into compliance.
“Orono-Veazie really turned this around comparatively rapidly,” he said. “We thought they were doing great. From that perspective, it’s a success.”
A Maine Drinking Water Program database of statewide test results for THMs from 2008 through 2013 shows that several municipal water systems have seen results much higher than Orono-Veazie has, though not all of the quarterly readings led to consent agreements, Crouse said.
Newport’s water district had a level of 195 ppb during the first quarter of 2009, while Eagle Lake had 192 ppb, Milo had 183 ppb and Jackman had 173 ppb during the third quarter of 2009, according to the database.
Crouse said that while eliminating all THMs from drinking water would be ideal, doing so would cost so much that water would become unaffordable.
“Affordable and safe water — that’s the expectation the public has of us,” he said.
Perkins said she and her group intend to continue pressing for improvements.
“It’s of concern, and the problem apparently has existed for some time, and we’ve had little to no communication from the water district about it — about how to remediate it in our homes, about the health effects, about these compounds in the water that we should know about,” she said.
Cross agreed that the district’s work is not done.
“Our last [test result] came back at 76 [ppb]. That still too close to the 80 [ppb]. That’s not satisfactory to us,” he said. “You know, what’s it gonna take to kick us back over the 80? It’s not gonna take much.
“We’re kind of looking at what are all of the options that could change what our THMs are. What can we do to get back in compliance and then what can we do to get the THM levels down as low as feasible, as possible, and stay there over the long haul,” Cross said.