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Tests in Center reveal water above safe level for drinking


High nitrate content in a well tested in the Center led to a press release by Supervisor Jim Dougherty on Friday, suggesting that Center residents “may want to consider having their own wells tested for water quality as high nitrate levels affect the quality of drinking water.”

According to Cornell University Cooperative Extension, an excess level of nitrates is especially harmful to infants and young children and “indicate[s] the possible presence of other more serious residential or agricultural contaminants, such as bacteria or pesticides.”

A month ago the town government received the results of the tests conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS reported that on two occasions last October nitrate levels at the Center test well near the school were above the 10 milligrams per liter that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Drinking Water Standard deems safe.

Also included in the report, along with the Center well findings, were results of wells tested on Shore Road in front of the Sunset Beach Hotel and on Menantic Road near the Recycling Center.

These results were discussed at an April 17 Water Advisory Committee (WAC) meeting. Peter Grand, a member of the WAC, wrote an email three days later to Mr. Dougherty and Town Engineer John Cronin that “USGS researchers … indicate septic influence at all three locations tested” [italics, Mr. Grand].

Mr. Cronin said he spoke with school district district Business Official Tim Laube on April 21 about unsafe nitrate levels tested at the Center well.

Mr. Laube told the Reporter on Friday that the school has its own well that has been tested for nitrates and is below the 10-milligram mark of safety.

Mr. Cronin spoke on April 26 with Fred Stumm, a research hydrologist for the USGS, mentioning that it seemed the test results indicated a “potential public health issue.”

“He agreed,” Mr. Cronin said.

The engineer scheduled a meeting with Mr. Dougherty and Town Attorney Laury Dowd on April 28 and briefed them on the test results.

The first public response on the information from the Town Board came at the May 16 Town Board work session.

“It’s nothing new,” Supervisor Jim Dougherty said at the meeting, after Councilman Paul Shepherd had said that he had seen posted signs at various spots in the Center that water had been unsafe for years.

The question, Mr. Shepherd said, is one of “context … Is it worse than it was? The same as it was? What?”

Mr. Cronin told the Reporter that the new information should be made public, noting that former warning signs may be gone and there are people in the Center who may not speak English.

At the May 16 meeting, Mr. Dougherty called for more clarity on the results, which should be available, he said, by the end of this month or by the middle of June.

After the Reporter contacted Mr. Dougherty Friday morning about the issue, the supervisor sent the press release stating: “The Town, through its Water Advisory Committee (WAC) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), has recently inaugurated water quality testing at four test wells on the Island, and the initial findings indicate high nitrate levels in the Center of the Island near the school. We immediately shared these results with school officials who indicate they also test their water quality regularly.
“Residents in the Center may want to consider having their own wells tested for water quality as high nitrate levels affect the quality of drinking water.
“The school, WAC and USGS continue to investigate the issue and the public is invited to the next meeting of the WAC, Monday June 19, 7 p.m. in Town Hall when the matter will be thoroughly discussed.”

Last October, Mr. Cronin told the Town Board that because of the many outdated septic systems, on a typical summer day on the Island, 10,000 residents produce 700,000 gallons of wastewater that goes into the aquifer. He compared that to 17 residential swimming pools of wastewater flooding into the aquifer daily.

Worst among the affected areas in town, he said at the October meeting, is the Center, where there are many people at the school, the American Legion Hall, the library and Town Hall.

There are efforts under way to improve water quality. A project started with grant money at the legion hall is now being shared with the school. In addition, a state-of the-art system has just been installed at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

The results of the USGS tests indicate there might be more to be done.

Mr. Grand, asked for comment, responded via email, stating: “These … results raise concerns about our ground-water, Island-wide, and not just near the school. All of our test sites have shown indications of septic contamination.

“The WAC volunteers are working with the engineer, the USGS and the board to ensure that Islanders are provided with clear info. The most important point to convey is that the time has come for the community as a whole to seriously address the need to protect the aquifer for generations to come.”