Sutton, In The NEK, To Treat Contaminated Public Well Water

Posted in: Crisis Response, Drinking Water News, Global Water News, Water Contamination, Water Crisis
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Jugs of water are used for cooking in the Sutton School cafeteria because the public well behind the school contains unhealthful nitrates. Photo credit: Charlotte Albright/VPR

Article courtesy of Charlotte Albright | February 2, 2015 | VPR | Shared as educational material

After two years without safe drinking water, the Caledonia County town of Sutton has finally decided to filter and treat water from its contaminated well. The unacceptable levels of nitrates in the water can be highly dangerous to young children.

In a corner of the Sutton School cafeteria, a dishwasher gurgles noisily. It uses water from the contaminated well behind the school, because chemicals can be added to make it safe. But all drinking and cooking water must come from big, blue five gallon jugs delivered to the school periodically. Cafeteria cooks Talisa Giorgio and Jennifer Seymour are growing a little weary of this extra step in the kitchen. They use bottled water to cook pasta, for example.

“Yes, we have to pick these up and put them in pans,”  Girogio explains as she lifts the jug. “And what, it’s been two and a half years?”

“Something like that,” Seymour says.

That’s how long it’s taken the town of Sutton to decide what to do about the contamination of its well water. Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Deputy Division Director Ellen Parr-Doering says the nitrates were detected in annual tests required for public water systems.

“It’s an acute contaminant, and what that means is, it’s a contaminant that can cause immediate health impacts,” she says.

Parr-Doering suspects the source of the nitrates is manure spread on nearby farms, though that has not been proven. State Toxicologist Sarah Vose says nitrates are especially harmful to children under six months because they can create methemoglobin in the bloodstream.

“That methemoglobin cannot carry enough oxygen to sustain the baby,” Vose says.

“And our best solution is to treat it,” says Scott Spencer, Sutton’s select board chairman.

“We are surrounded by agricultural [land], so even though we could drill a new well and get good water, the next five years we could be right back in the same boat,” he says.

Spencer says the two largest farms in town have voluntarily reduced the amount of manure they spread, but not enough to lower the nitrates in the water to acceptable levels. He predicts water rates, which have historically been about $200 per year for each of the 20 users, will double soon, and eventually may quadruple, to pay off the $457,000 water bond approved by the select board last week.

Meanwhile, state regulators are worried that private wells are also polluted, but they cannot order tests or fixes for them. And they also warn that bottled water must be properly stored, and not for too long – otherwise, it, too, can create health problems.

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