We trust our local, state and federal governments to safeguard human health by developing regulations that protect the public. We also expect our public utilities — especially those charged with providing safe drinking water — to follow these regulations.
In Orono and Veazie, where the water district that serves both towns has regularly put its customers at risk of consuming potentially cancer-causing contaminants, compliance may not be enough.
In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency started requiring public drinking water systems across the U.S. to test for four chlorination by-products known collectively as trihalomethanes, or THM. These contaminants — bromodichloromethane, bromoform, chloroform and dibromochloromethane — are classified as possible or probable human carcinogens, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Chronic exposure to these contaminants increases the risk of developing cancer and liver, kidney and central nervous system problems. In addition, pregnant women may experience adverse birth outcomes following exposure to high levels of THM.
While the goal for THM in drinking water is zero, the EPA set a maximum contaminant level of 80 parts per billion (ppb) in public drinking water supplies. In Orono and Veazie, a third of test samples have exceeded the 80 ppb maximum since the water district began water tests in 2005 to comply with the EPA mandate. The Orono-Veazie Water District collected these samples from a single testing site approved by the Maine Drinking Water Program — a fire hydrant in front of the Veazie Community School at 1040 School Street.
Water collected from this site should be representative of the quality of water delivered to every business and every home served by the Orono-Veazie Water District, a utility with nearly 6,000 water connections. But the water district superintendent has explained that THM generally forms in dead-end and low-flow lines where water turnover is infrequent based on minimal demand.
The approved compliance testing site on School Street is served by the largest-diameter water main of any in the Orono-Veazie Water District distribution system. How could the water collected from this high-capacity underground line be truly representative of the quality of water delivered to customers’ homes, including those at the limits of the distribution system? A September 2012 sample collected at the terminus of the water line in Veazie measured 103 ppb.
According to instructions provided by the Maine Drinking Water Program, samples to be tested for THM compliance should be collected from a faucet. Samples from a heated building would more accurately depict the THM exposure common in customers’ homes. Yet, prior to Oct. 1, the Maine Drinking Water Program had approved the fire hydrant on School Street in Veazie as the single compliance testing site.
As a chronic violator of safe drinking water standards, the Orono-Veazie Water District is currently a party to an administrative consent order with the Maine Drinking Water Program. In response, the water district has been flushing the water lines near the testing site prior to collecting the required samples. Veazie’s School Street line was flushed most recently on Nov. 19, and a compliance sample collected from the site after flushing was completed. At 76.1 ppb, the contaminant level in this sample did not exceed the maximum, but the “flush then test” strategy employed raises a number of important questions.
Because of its chronic noncompliance, the Orono-Veazie Water District is now required to sample THM levels at two locations. The new testing site is the Memorial Union at the University of Maine. Samples collected at the Memorial Union in April and November 2009 measured THM levels at 24.6 ppb and 177 ppb, respectively. The compliance sample collected from the Memorial Union last month measured 47.4 ppb.
Although the Orono-Veazie Water District has complied with EPA testing guidelines according to the Maine Drinking Water Program, and has recently achieved compliance with maximum allowable contaminant levels in samples collected in Veazie, water users should expect more.
The water district should test at multiple locations — including at residences and businesses served by dead-end lines — to get representative measures of contaminant levels. It should test for THM levels before and after flushing the water line at the primary testing site in Veazie. And it should notify customers within a reasonable time period after each violation and make home water filters available at little or no cost.
To safeguard public health, the water district must seek to go above and beyond compliance.
Joan Perkins is a concerned citizen who has lived in Veazie for 20 years.