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Water Dispute Provokes Hard Feelings in Town of Perry
10/30/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

A groundwater dispute in Washington County is causing hard feelings in the town of Perry, where voters will soon decide whether or not to approve a moratorium on water projects. The move comes in response to a Passamaquoddy effort to find clean water for members who reside on the Pleasant Point Reservation. While the town of Perry prepares to put the brakes on the search, the tribe says it deserves to have something it was promised. Jennifer Mitchell has more.

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Water Dispute Provokes Hard Feelings in Town of Pe Listen
 Duration:
3:55

Passamaquoddy water 1

Boyden Lake, the origination point for the Passamaquoddy tribe's drinking water.

Last month, when Tammy Pearson of Perry noticed that her morning shower had dwindled to trickle, she assumed that something was wrong with the system. "So we thought, perhaps, we had a pump issue," she says. "And so we replaced the pump."

But that didn't fix the problem. And after 10 days of hauling buckets of water to flush the toilet, Pearson and her husband hired a contractor to take a look. Fifteen hundred dollars later, Pearson says she finally learned that on Passamaquoddy lands adjacent to her property, an engineering firm hired by the tribe was conducting a massive pump test of the local aquifer.

Passamaquoddy water 2 - wellIt was too much for Pearson's 64-foot well (left), which she says went dry. "Our property absolutely touches the property that they were drilling on, and as an abutting property owner, they should have let us know," she says. "And, you know - just a lot of hard feelings."

Pearson isn't alone in her frustration. Several people testified at recent town meetings that they were also blindsided by the pump test. But tribal representatives say they've already offered compensation and help to those whose wells were affected.

And, they say, the project shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to the town - the tribe at Pleasant Point has been seeking better water for years. "Not once have I been satisfied with the water that comes out of the faucet," says tribal council member Ed Bassett.

Bassett remembers when the Passamaquoddy Water District was first formed by the state in the 1980s, to serve Pleasant Point and the town of Eastport. And he also remembers what was promised. "The charter states they are doing this to create this water district to have 'pure water,'" he says. "Never happened."

Instead, Bassett says the tribe has had to contend with such terrible water that it habitually requires boiling before it can be consumed. The water has also flunked EPA tests over the years. In 2011, the tribe began a search for better water, with a grant from the federal government. Tribal officials say they notified the town of Perry of their plans then.

As for the latest round of pump tests, the engineering firm that conducted the test has publicly apologized for the breakdown in communication. But Perry's First Selectman Karen Raye says the incident shows that safeguards are needed.

"So, moving forward, we've just asked - we're going to ask the voters of the town of Perry for a moratorium, which basically just means a time out," Raye says. "It just gives us 180 days to get our ducks in a row and get ready for a possible project."

That means constructing the town's first water ordinance. Raye is hopeful any conflicts can be resolved. But she says the town has not ruled out the possibility of taking legal action against the tribe.

William Longfellow, the Passamaquoddy's water quality program manager says part of the problem is that the water treatment plant is located on a stream that picks up contaminants along the way. "Phosphates, nitrates - they may spike just during a quick rain, doesn't even have to be a heavy rain," he says. "Then coliforms, even e Coli, could be from fertilizer. I mean, the riparian buffer zone isn't that thick."

Longfellow says landowners are probably following established land use rules, but, he says, those rules may not be stringent enough to guarantee clean, potable surface water.

The Pleasant Point water project is unlikely to be affected by the moratorium, should it pass on Nov. 4. The tribe is currently awaiting the results of September's pump test, and has no plans to start drilling anytime in the next several months. During the moratorium, the town of Perry would begin drafting a water use ordinance.

Meanwhile, Pleasant Point Environment Director Marvin Cling, says the tribe is planning to devise its own water protection plan to safeguard resources in areas owned by the tribe.

"The tribe wants to be here for the next 10,000 years, so you will always hear from tribes that we want clean water, and that's all we're doing here too," Cling says.

How those two plans would affect one another is not yet clear to either side. But one thing both sides can agree on is that the town and the tribe have a lot to discuss over the next six months.

Photos:  Nick Woodward

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