Potentially harmful contaminants known as PFAS, or PFCs, detected in the water at the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells Water District’s Kimball Lane well in West Kennebunk resulted in the shutdown of the well last spring, according to District Superintendent Norm Labbe.
Labbe said that while the level of PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, found in the well were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory set in May 2016, the district decided to err on the side of caution. Labbe said Maine aligns with the federal guideline of 70 parts per trillion, and the Kimball Lane well tested at 50 parts per trillion last spring.
“We were not in any violation of a drinking water standard, and we are below the health advisory, and we still shut the well down as a precaution,” Labbe said. “We could have watched and waited and continued to test while the EPA figured out permanent guidelines. But we don’t roll that way here. There was doubt, there were questions about what that level should be. So we shut it down.”
Labbe believes the chemicals that contaminated the Kimball Lane well came from byproducts from the paper industry spread on fields at a nearby farm. PFAS (PFCs) are a class of man-made chemicals used to produce waterproof and greaseproof paper, paper plates, popcorn bags, pizza boxes, food containers, sticker paper, and sticky notes. They were also found in other common household products like stain and water resistant clothing, carpet spot cleaners, alkaline cleaners, denture cleaners, shampoos, floor polish, and dishwashing liquids.
Some human health studies have shown that PFCs may cause cancer, decrease fertility and interfere with the body’s hormones, hurt the developing fetus and child, and increase cholesterol. Labbe said the EPA determines maximum contaminant levels in drinking water based on an average person drinking two liters of water for a lifetime, or 70 years.
“The threshold where they (EPA) say there’s an issue is if they see between 1 and 10 cancers per million people, that’s usually where they will set a maximum contaminant level,” Labbe said. “They’re saying anything below that level will not result in a cancer caused by that contaminant. People could say there was no need for us to shut down the well, it was only online for four years, and we are below the 70 parts per trillion level, but we wanted to be proactive.”
Some states, like Vermont, New York, and New Jersey have set stricter limitations. The EPA guidelines are based on the size of an adult. Labbe said states that are lowering their guidelines are using children as the measuring stick.
The Kimball Lane well was online from 2013 to 2017 and served all of West Kennebunk, including Kennebunk Elementary School and Middle School of the Kennebunks. Having schools in the area was a deciding factor in taking the well offline, Labbe said.
The cost of cleanup at the Kimball Lane well
The Kimball Lane well was constructed at a cost of $3 million in 2013. More than half of that cost, according to Labbe, went into getting pipes to the site. The Branch Brook watershed has been the primary source of water for the district since 1895. With the Kimball Lane well shut down, it is again supplying the majority of water to customers.
The district has set up a pilot testing facility at the well site to treat the water and remove the compounds. Labbe said if the pilot tests are successful a large carbon-filter system will have to be constructed, and it will not come cheap.
“We’re estimating around $1.5 million to build a facility, with an additional $80,000 a year for operating costs. When the well is back online it will generate a quarter of the district’s water supply to customers,” he said.
The impact to ratepayers is roughly three to four cents per day, according to Labbe, and they won’t see the increase for several years.
“It’s still cheaper than buying water from an outside water utility, and it keeps us independent,” he said.
Labbe said they will run the tests for another few months before determining next steps.
PFCs cause health concerns in nearby Portsmouth
The city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, closed the Haven well at the Pease International Tradeport in 2014 after the Air Force found levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, at levels 12.5 times higher than what was then the EPA’s provisional health advisory.
Air Force officials believe the PFCs that contaminated the Haven well came from firefighting foam used at the base.
The tradeport was home to about 9,000 employees and two day care centers when the Haven well was shut down and health concerns still loom while advocates push for testing and answers.
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