Since 2004, the Orono-Veazie Water District has struggled to adequately reduce and maintain safe trihalomethane, or THM, levels in drinking water delivered to the two communities.
While a consent order forcing the district to remedy the situation has been lifted, residents are still concerned about the quality of the source water, disinfection and filtration practices, water testing and the water delivery system. There’s also reason to be concerned about the district’s ability to consistently provide safe drinking and bathing water to its stakeholders. These concerns are directly related to information provided in the district’s annual water quality reports and information prepared by the district’s engineering consultants as part of its obligations under the administrative consent order.
THMs are a group of byproducts formed when chlorine is used to disinfect water high in organic matter. The wells from which the Orono Veazie Water District has sourced the drinking water for these communities have consistently high levels of organic matter.
THMs are well studied and are characterized as carcinogens based on their effects on the two main filtration systems in the human body — the liver and kidneys. Prolonged exposure to THMs can also impair central nervous system function and has been linked to bladder cancer. These chemicals in our drinking water are of the utmost concern to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system, according to the World Health Organization.
The maximum contaminant level for total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, has been established by the EPA at 80 parts per billion. In 2012, Old Town, Brewer and Bangor had average TTHM levels of 14.7, 2.2, and 2.61 ppb, respectively. Data obtained from the Orono-Veazie Water District indicates that for nearly 10 years the TTHM levels in the water provided to the two towns have regularly exceeded the maximum contaminant level. In 2012, THM exceeded the maximum level in every quarter; the running annual average exceeded the maximum contaminant level at 84 ppb.
Although the goal for any contaminant in drinking water is zero, Orono’s current water treatment technologies and source water are not likely to achieve this goal. Orono and Veazie residents who drink this water every day expect the district to develop new benchmarks to address their concerns about exposure to these hazardous contaminants. Results reported by water utilities in neighboring towns indicate that THM in drinking water can be consistently maintained near zero.
The water infrastructure in Orono and Veazie is antiquated and delivers water to many of its customers by dead-end lines where minimal flow allows organic matter to build up in the pipelines. The use of chlorine helps to form THM.
The Orono-Veazie Water District can reduce the presence of THM in our drinking water. It could develop and implement a comprehensive plan to systematically upgrade the distribution system. The installation of recirculation loops, for example, could resolve some of the deficiencies that lead to the buildup of THM in our drinking water.
As long as it continues to deliver old water through old pipes, the Orono-Veazie Water District will have to use chlorine as a secondary disinfectant. That will continue to expose district stakeholders to excessive levels of trihalomethanes.
As the stewards of a critical shared resource, the Orono-Veazie Water District must act now to ensure the quality and safety of our water.
Deborah Blease is a resident of Orono.