2014-09-18 / Front Page

Middletown Nitrates at All Time High

Toxins in wells may prompt entry of public water from Newport
By James Merolla

Nitrate levels are so high in well water for families in many homes along the east side of Middletown that the City of Newport may be required to introduce, manage and oversee the piping in of public water to these and other as–yet identified neighborhoods.

The Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) recently identified numerous private wells in the Orchard Farm (Peckham Estates) subdivision that are contaminated with the highest levels of nitrates in the state.

Town Administrator Shawn Brown told the Town Council on Monday, Sept. 15, that DOH had notified him in mid-February that wells along the east side of town – Mitchell’s Lane, Peckham Estates and other neighborhoods – contained water filled with high levels of nitrates. The discovery came after a home for sale in that area was tested and revealed that nitrate levels “were actually the highest recorded in the state.”

“It got the attention of the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management,” said Brown. Depending on what you read, he added, nitrates in water can cause serious health problems, the most pressing issues being for children under six months of age and the elderly.

“The town worked with DOH to get a number of wells tested. Approximately 180 wells (were) tested in that area. In the end, 40 percent were tested. From a reporting standpoint, 56 percent of wells tested have a nitrate level needing action,” said Brown.

The administration has met with DOH and DEM several times and the state agencies have made four recommendations:

. Continue to educate the public and continue to monitor the quality of water in private wells.

. Expand the present water distribution system and, in Brown's words, “essentially bring a public water supply to neighborhoods.”

. Look at the stormwater collection system.

. Look at adopting a more comprehensive wastewater management ordinance.

The details are not yet in place, Brown stated, but Middletown must develop a stricter plan for people who run out private wastewater and who have not updated or repaired their septic system. The town may have to create an ordinance to place greater restrictions on people who have private water systems on their property. “Clearly, bottom line, this is the recommendation of DEM. Thirty percent of residential properties in the Town of Middletown [are] on septic systems. There is no real oversight on how private septic systems are monitored,” he said.

While the most pressing issues involving nitrates are drinking wells soaking in above-lawn fertilizers, town policy on these private systems must be re-examined and changed. “Basically, the policy [we are following now in town] talks about recommendations from the Department of Health…We must proceed to start investigating different options available to the town, with public water being one of them.”

Brown explained what will happen going forward.

Town Engineer Warren Hall will have to investigate introducing public water supplies into Middletown with the Department of Public Works, the town planner, the fire chief, the Road and Utilities Committee, and the City of Newport in “identifying issues, recommendations, comments, collecting those and forwarding a report to [me].” The town administrator will then put a plan together, coordinating with Newport, looking at certain neighborhoods first. “The scope of this project has the potential to grow to a much larger geographical area beyond the east side,” said Brown.

“The City of Newport controls the master plan of how the water distribution is set up and how water would come from Mitchell’s Lane,” he remarked. There would have to be “quite a bit of reconfiguration of water lines, [and] quite a bit of work to figure out what the area would be.”

One of the future requirements is that Hall has is to create a cost estimate. "When he gives me that information, policy requires me to contact residents within a 30-day time limit,” added Brown. “I have to explain to them what’s going on and inform them of what private costs would be.”

If public water comes in, Brown said that homeowners with contaminated wells or inferior drinking water will have to “pay their fair share. The total project cost [is] allocated by linear footage fronting the project. That’s an important consideration."

Brown continued, “They think they go to the council, ask for water, and it happens. When you explain to them that there is a cost involved, they say, ‘I don’t want to do anything,' 'My well’s not impacted, ‘I just fixed my well…' [when] there is a cost involved, then they start seeking alternatives, like fixing their wells.”

The wells are old and require maintenance, he said. “There is a point in the process where a homeowner has the chance to weigh in to continue with the private system or the town will come in or construct a public system.” Once residents are contacted by Brown, they will have a month to decide if they want to continue with private water or not. He will then bring the ballots back to the council for its consideration.

Brown reiterated there was no concern for pesticides in drinking water in the area in question. Some 80 percent of all fertilizers in the state go onto lawns, he said. Small lots in certain areas are an issue because stormwater has little area to run off. Agriculture next to residents is also a factor, as well as some animal waste.

When residents don’t clean their systems for five to seven years, Brown said, “Over time this is what happens. It impacts the drinking water." The nitrate problem will not solve itself overnight, added Brown. “It will be a slow, deliberate process.”

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