ORONO, Maine — Parents worried about potentially harmful chemicals in their water brought their pajama-clad children to the Orono-Veazie Water District meeting Tuesday night as part of a silent protest.
The dozen youngsters, dressed in PJs featuring Batman, panda bears, construction equipment, owls and playful monsters, played quietly in the back of the 7 p.m. meeting and then were led out by their parents about 15 minutes after the meeting started.
“I live in Orono and the water quality has been very poor,” said Deb Soderberg, a middle school math and social studies teacher who brought along her 6-year-old son. “I’m a teacher at the middle school and the kids drink from the water fountain daily and they have no idea it has cancer-causing elements.”
“I got a home filter for my house but it’s not going to help the kids in the school or people eating downtown,” she said later.
At issue is the level of disinfection byproducts in the public water, such as trihalomethanes, or THMs, a group of four chemical compounds, and haloacetic acids, known as HAA5, which include monochloroacetic acid, dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, monobromoacetic acid and dibromoacetic acid.
Both THMs and haloacetic acids are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to control microbial contaminants in drinking water and react with naturally occurring organic and inorganic matter in water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which requires quarterly testing for them.
The EPA says people who drink water with higher than allowable levels of THMs or haloacetic acids over many years may have an increased risk of cancer, with young people, pregnant women and the elderly being more susceptible.
That is one reason why parents brought their children to the meeting, organizer Katie Quirk said.
“For 10 years now we’ve frequently been in violation of the EPA water standards and we’ve been politely asking for change,” she said. “Now, we’re demanding a comprehensive plan [be created] to address the issues.”
The EPA has set a limit of 80 parts per billion for THMs and 60 ppb for haloacetic acids in public drinking water supplies.
A June test showed a THM level of 55.9, however, the level of haloacetic acids had increased to 61 parts per billion at the Memorial Union on the University of Maine campus, one of two collection sites for the Orono-Veazie Water District.
The haloacetic acids level decreased to less than 5 parts per billion at the Memorial Union on Aug. 20, but a Veazie test taken the same day tallied 68 parts per billion, the water district website states. The THM was 53.3.
The website states the levels are compliant, even though they exceed the EPA restrictions. Water District Superintendent Dennis Cross explained in July that numbers are averaged over the last four quarters.
The district is working with Wright-Pierce to address the problem, Water District Superintendent Dennis Cross said. He gave an update about a new water source at the meeting, saying that the test wells have been drilled.
“They have completed the test wells and I’m waiting for the report to come back from Wright-Pierce,” Cross said Wednesday.
The test results will include information about water levels, water quality and sustainability.
Cross said the last time the district violated the EPA limit for THMs was in the fall of 2011.
The concerned residents don’t just want compliance, the water superintendent said, “they want it better than that.”
Improvements cost money and the water district board is doing all they can within the budgetary constraints they are under, Cross said.
“That is what it comes down to,” he said. “Yes, there is technology out there that reduces the levels, but can a community afford that?”
Quirk said the concerned residents have crafted a petition letter that is posted on the group’s website that will be presented to town leaders in Orono and Veazie.