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Chlorination By-Products Raise Concerns about Maine Community's Drinking Water
12/03/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Clean, safe drinking water is something most of us take for granted. But a recent administrative consent order between the Maine Drinking Water Program and the Orono Veazie Water District has raised concerns among some local residents about the health effects of chlorination, not just in their communities but around the state. Susan Sharon reports.

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They're called trihalomethanes - or THMs for short - and they're chemical compounds that form when naturally-occurring organic and inorganic materials react with chlorine in drinking water. Essentially, they're a by-product of the disinfection process. And because they are potentially carcinogenic, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum level of 80 parts per billion for THMs, and water districts are routinely asked to test for them.

"We've probably had a dozen to 15 public water systems in the state that have had consent agreements with us dealing with disinfection by-products since 2006, probably," says Roger Crouse, the director of the state of Maine Drinking Water Program.

Recently, Crouse signed off on an administrative consent order with the Orono Veazie Water District because, since late 2011 and through the end of last year, the water district has exceeded the maximum contaminant level for "total trihalomethanes" and was in non-compliance. Crouse says the latest test results are not back yet.

"The last three quarters they've been below the standard and they just took another sample. We haven't seen the results on that yet," he says. "But the consent agreement that we have with them is to make sure that they continue to make progress towards modifying their water system and making improvements, so that the water continues to be safe for the consumers."

As part of the consent agreement, the water district must take steps to lower its THM levels, continue to test on a quarterly basis and provide monthly operating reports.

But some residents are concerned that the water district hasn't done enough to reduce the contaminant levels, which have reached over 100 parts per billion at several monitoring locations last year. Long-term exposure has been linked to bladder and kidney problems and an increased risk of cancer.

Suzanne Malis-Andersen is a retired science teacher who serves on the Veazie Planning Board. "It does concern you that you've been drinking water that isn't safe," she says, "and to look at an administrative consent order - it's like the state has intervened because we haven't done anything to stop this!"

Malis-Andersen says she and others have been researching the chlorination problem ever since they learned about it at a town council meeting last month, and heard a presentation about the health effects from nursing students at the University of Maine.

"Needless to say the next day I called Bangor Water District and I called Brewer Water District," she says. "And, for an example, when I called Bangor Water District they told me their highest level of THMs was 20.8." Malis-Andersen says Brewer's numbers were even lower.

Dennis Cross, the superintendent of the Orono-Veazie Water District, which serves about 5,000 customers, says the utility has hired an engineering firm with expertise in THMs and plans on reaching compliance as quickly as possible and then keeping levels well below the federal standard.

"I would not want us to be looked at as, O.K., you're at 78, everybody's happy and we're not going to do anything more. No, that's not the case," Cross says. "I mean it's our intent to provide the two communities we serve with the best possible water we can."

Residents, meanwhile, say they plan to ask the district for more frequent testing and more transparency about the findings.

In the interest of full disclosure, Orono Veazie Water District Board of Directors member Jay Fortier also serves on MPBN's Board of Trustees.

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