There is something in the water in Maine. A 2008 report by the Associated Press released on September 24 of this year shows that Maine has the third-most water quality violations in the country. Focusing on schools in towns that obtain their water from well systems, the study focused primarily on contamination from poisons like lead, arsenic and bacteria.
Maine towns, which obtain public water from various well systems, are not necessarily at fault for these violations. What the report fails to specify is the specific sources of contamination. The majority of the violations occurred in private residences and businesses. The most significant contributor to the various contaminations is the unique geology of the state of Maine.
Manager of Bowdoin Environmental Health and Safety and licensed hydrologist Mark Fisher explained how the relatively recent glacial period in Maine contributes to a highly original geologic landscape.
"Maine geology was recently glaciated and these glaciers basically scraped anything not bedrock into the ocean and when they withdrew, they dropped sand and gravel," said Fisher.
Much of Midcoast Maine, including Brunswick, lies on top of what is called a mapped sand and gravel aquifer. This aquifer naturally filters water so that water distribution companies, such as the Brunswick & Topsham Water District, are able to maintain very high qualities of water from four different well locations.
"We're in an aquifer protection zone which has stringent rules associated with it. The difference is that the type of aquifer protection zone determines what kind of activities are allowed to take place on it," said Fisher.
The wells supplying Brunswick are spaced out in what is called a pincushion system with multiple small and shallow wells.
"A typical well is in bedrock, it's not as seasonal as a sand and gravel well," said Fisher. "With Bedrock wells you can get issues with naturally radioactive rocks. You can get small amounts of radon. Arsenic comes from igneous and metamorphic rock types. As these decay, heavy metals fall out of them."
The most recent report published by the Brunswick & Topsham Water District reported zero violations and an overall excellent record of water quality being supplied from the four different well sites.
General Manager of the Brunswick & Topsham Water District Alan Frasier explained how the sand and gravel aquifer—or the underground layer from which water can be extracted—contributes to the level of quality maintained in local water.
"We check for pH, fluoride and chlorine at least once a day. Those are not required water quality tests under EPA or state regulations," said Frasier. "We test for bacteria in the distribution system 15 times per month. We test for lead and copper once every three years and the full ground water test is done once every three years."
With these routine tests it is hard to understand why such a high amount of violations were reported.
Frasier offered a possible explanation for these reports.
"There are a lot of other factors," he said. "There are violations of EPA and state regulations that are not directly due to contaminant levels being exceeded. For example, if you do not file your paperwork, that can be filed as a violation."
This seems a very plausible explanation after a September 13, 2009 New York Times study showed that nine out of the 12 violations occurring within a 20-mile radius of Bowdoin were issued not to water districts, but to private businesses and homes.
These violations can be caused by faulty pipes or simply old plumbing. Even some of the older campus buildings could have some lead or copper contamination.
"As far as things individuals can do, very likely there will be copper and lead pipes so you can let the water run for a couple seconds to make sure any contaminants clean out," said Fisher.
This point is stressed by the Brunswick & Topsham Water District Report, which warns water consumers "the Brunswick and Topsham Water District is responsible for providing high-quality drinking water but cannot control the variety of materials used in plumbing components."
With uncertainty in the plumbing of older buildings, extra water quality tests at Bowdoin might seem like a good idea.
Not so said Fisher.
"It's really not necessary. Public water supplies are very strictly regulated in Maine."
Fisher also attributed some of the contamination to Maine's agricultural waste.
"With shallow wells you can get run-off from agricultural fields and fertilizer which can have harmful chemicals in it," he sadi.
Frasier supported this claim in his explanation of more frequent testing at one of the Brunswick-Topsham well sites.
"One of our stations is tested annually because of geological factors. It has a higher vulnerability to contamination," said Frasier. "It's a shallow sand aquifer of about fifteen-feet deep, so things on the ground can leak into the water."
"The other two sources are in sand and gravel aquifers. They start at 100-feet below. Overlaying that is a lot of salt and clay which is an effective barrier," he said.
As far as regulating public water supply in Maine is concerned, the state authorities, such as the EPA, seem un-phased by the types of contamination being reported. In the same New York Times study mentioned previously, the state only enforces 3.5 out of every hundred water violations.
With so much empty land in Maine and water sources like the Androscoggin River just down the street, it might seem counterintuitive to use potentially risky groundwater. As Fisher explained, it depends enormously on the geographical and demographic circumstances.
"It depends on what purpose you are trying to serve," said Fisher. "Sebago Lake serves Portland. It is very well managed and necessary for a large urban setting to get a large volume of water consistently."
Frasier said that the four well sites of the Brunswick & Topsham Water District are a good match for the community.
"We have way more than sufficient supplies. They are all high quality sources and the economics of each one are fairly equivalent."