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Polluted water found statewide

Published July 25, 2011 | By Jeff Montgomery

Three months ago, environmental regulators in Delaware received a blunt warning from the Environmental Protection Agency after workers in Dover drilled a deep test well where federal investigators were tracking shallow groundwater pollution.

Check first before drilling, the EPA said, or pay the price for endangering the public’s water.

The letter warned that the drilling might allow the “extensive” contamination to leak into “deeper water-bearing zones used by the City of Dover for drinking water.”

At issue are toxic chemicals spreading underneath one of the most iconic spots in Delaware – The Green, a town square where Caesar Rodney and other signers of the Declaration of Independence once gathered and political life in Delaware still thrives.

Today, docents in period costume lead tours on the brick walkways and lush lawns near the General Assembly. Crowds gather on The Green for summer concerts, in some places just 26 feet above soils tainted by the residues of coal, gas and dry-cleaning solvents.

The EPA is testing to see if harmful vapors are seeping into the basements of historic homes.

“This continues to happen, and it’s in areas where people have done business or have lived,” said Scott Andres, a scientist at the University of Delaware-based Delaware Geological Survey. “We’ll continue to find things. That’s kind of frightening to lots of people, because you don’t always know how serious it is.”

The most pervasive poisoning of the state’s groundwater can be found between Old New Castle and Delaware City, in an industrial complex of chemical, oil and gasoline manufacturers.

But no community in Delaware is immune to a legacy of heavy manufacturing, power generation and agriculture.

In a yearlong investigation, The News Journal found groundwater contamination in every corner of the state, much of it recorded by state and federal regulators or corporations but not widely shared with the public except when contaminants are discovered at dangerous levels in drinking water.

•In south Newark, state regulators in May expanded a ban on any new drinking-water wells on properties near the site of a 1986 chemical plant explosion. The change came seven years after the same pollution forced city officials to shut down one of their most productive groundwater supplies, located more than 1,000 feet from the former Helix factory, where spills tainted an underlying aquifer with chlorinated methanes, chlorobenzene, acetone, benzene and chloroform.

•Ninety miles south, in Millsboro, taxpayers are expected to pay $10 million or more to replace public wells contaminated by solvents from an old poultry vaccine factory. Discovery of the problem in 2005 initially forced thousands in Millsboro and Dagsboro to buy bottled water or drive to water tankers pulled into town by the National Guard.

•In Newport, pollution left behind at the former Koppers Co., a closed wood-treatment plant, has forced officials to consider rerouting a narrow stream called Hershey Run to ease threats to deeper groundwater.

•In New Castle, Croda Inc. and ICI Americas are trying to determine how far a chemical called bis (2-chloroethyl) ether has spread in a deep aquifer near Artesian Water's Collins Park neighborhood.

•In Seaford, state and federal officials are reviewing chemical solvent levels in a city-owned well tainted by a DuPont Co. subcontractor in 1992. Cleanup work also is under way in Milford to limit groundwater damage from years of pesticide spills at a former state mosquito control base.

One University of Delaware study -- co-authored by Andres and released in 2008 with little public discussion -- found that 9 percent of more than 34,000 private domestic wells in Delaware are inside zones where pollutants could flow from known contamination sites. Most are at medium to high risk for eventual problems.

"It's dark down there," said Lenny Siegel, who directs the California-based Citizens for Public Environmental Oversight, a group that tracks pollution cleanups. "You're trying to piece together information about the condition of drinking-water supplies from indirect measurements that are infrequent and sparse -- a few samples that are years apart. It's not hard to miss something."

Emergency in Millsboro

Millsboro resident Brittany Kelso still has doubts about her town's water supply and water system after Millsboro endured one of the state's worst cases of drinking-water pollution in 2005. Thousands were advised to rely on bottled or trucked-in water at the height of the emergency.

Even after millions in government spending to install a filter system and dig a new well, Kelso still relies on bottled water for her family's routine drinking.

"You're always a little bit skeptical about it," Kelso said. "They say it's fixed. We use the town water for cooking and washing and we will drink it, but I also still buy bottled water."

Levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic solvent, were dozens of times higher than federal drinking-water limits in Millsboro by the time periodic testing caught the problem in two out of three wells used to supply the town and neighboring Dagsboro.

TCE ranks among the more common pollutants found in drinking water, and is a public health concern. The chemical can cause cancer, liver and kidney disease and reproductive disorders after long-term exposure to vapors or tainted water.

Although routine testing detected the problem, officials said that residents could have been unknowingly exposed to the pollution for weeks before the problem was found and verified.

Officials kept a health warning on the community's water for six weeks, and eventually had to drill 130 test wells to pin down the source of the problem and map its size.

Tests found TCE concentrations in the worst-hit well at more than 50 times the federal drinking-water limit, although water from a deeper well was routinely mixed with the tainted source and likely limited public exposure, DNREC reported during its investigation. Water in some homes was found to have 14 times more TCE than the federal maximum.

Before the EPA assumed control of the cleanup under the federal "Superfund" program, the $10 million price tag threatened to cripple a Delaware toxic cleanup fund already hard hit by bills for other site cleanups and declining revenues from fuel taxes. The fund once took in nearly $20 million yearly, but that shrank to $9 million last year, all of it consumed by cleanup projects and programs.

In Millsboro, the EPA took on the job of finding the source of the contamination and seeking damages, an effort that is often time-consuming and futile. Few private assets are expected to be available to help at Millsboro, although investigators have listed two former companies and a poultry-industry health scientist, Hiram Lasher, as possibly responsible.

Lasher has said that he has no recollection of TCE leaks while he controlled the vaccine plant there during the 1950s. A DNREC letter to Lasher in late 2006 said that state contractors removed 209 tons of TCE-contaminated sludge from buried tanks on property Lasker once owned, and found extensive pollution in buried pipes and equipment.

DNREC had cautioned three years before TCE was found in Millsboro's drinking water that the town's shallow wells were "highly vulnerable" to some types of contamination, because of their location and depth. A decade before that, the EPA ordered National Cash Register Co. to clean up and control TCE that escaped from a lagoon at a Millsboro plant about two miles from the more recent TCE contamination sites.

Millsboro's wells also had long been known to have too much nitrate, a pollution tied to fertilizer and sewage.

Nitrate levels in the town's two shallow wells averaged 11 parts per billion, just over the level that triggers warnings about health risks, especially for children and pregnant women. Millsboro managed the problem as many other communities do: by mixing the tainted water from the shallow wells with water from deeper wells to dilute nitrate concentrations.

Plume spreads under Dover

In Dover, groundwater near and under some of the city's oldest buildings carries benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, perchloroethene (a dry-cleaning solvent) and trichloroethene released from the site of the former Dover Gas Light coal-to-gas plant and a dry-cleaning business that was destroyed in a fire.

Initially believed to be limited, the Dover contamination has been mapped under several blocks from an area not far from the landmark Spence's Bazaar, spreading east through The Green to the banks of the St. Jones River.

Several of Dover's 14 drinking-water wells are within one mile of the plume. The closest is about 1,000 feet to the southeast, according to letters on file at DNREC's Site Investigation and Restoration Branch.

Efforts to track the pollution collided with the historic atmosphere in Dover during the summers of 2008 and 2009, when state tour guides in Colonial-era dress steered visitors to The Green around heavy drilling rigs working under contract to the EPA.

The underground pollutants also have complicated state attempts to explore groundwater suitability for a geothermal system that would help heat and cool a new city library. In March, an EPA project manager sent DNREC cleanup managers a letter chiding the state agency for allowing a deep test well in the area.

"The state is obligated not to interfere" with the EPA's investigation, EPA project manager Frederick N. MacMillan wrote to his DNREC counterpart. Problems created by the drilling could make Delaware "solely responsible for any costs."

Federal officials said current public health risks from the water are low. All of the capital's wells take water from aquifers below the 85-foot layer now being probed for contamination. Environmental investigators have cautioned, though, that tainted water could release vapors, called "soil gas," capable of trickling into basements and causing health problems.

The EPA has been quietly conducting "vapor intrusion" studies at homes around The Green. Final results are due later this year, along with a remedy plan.

"I know all about that, and they came through and went into my basement and said that everything was OK, but I don't know what they're going to be able to do about it anyway," said Irene King, who lived about a block from the coal gas site as a child and now lives on one of the streets targeted by the EPA.

"There's no way they're going to get that stuff out of the ground," King said, or keep it from eventually seeping into the waters of the nearby St. Jones River.

A matter of time

The typical response to tainted groundwater in Delaware is to drill deeper.

But full confidence in Delaware's deeper supplies could be short-lived. Around Delaware City, carcinogens from the petrochemical complex have pierced the layer of clay that federal and state regulators said would always protect the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies water to hundreds of thousands in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

In 2008, a DNREC report conceded that some of the state's deepest and best aquifers may be clear today only because "not enough time" has passed for sinking chemicals to reach them.

"I don't think we really understand how many straws we're sticking into the different aquifers, what the pollution loading is, what the rate of transmission is through the groundwater," said Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, a water quality and protection advocacy group.

Delaware's list of groundwater woes, already long, is incomplete, researchers say.

University of Delaware scientists concluded in a report for the Delaware Cancer Consortium that state databases and monitoring programs are "not adequate" to judge the effectiveness of pollution testing for private and small-group public water supplies, even near known contamination sites.

The state's testing and recordkeeping practices are "poorly suited" to the job of evaluating toxic and cancer-causing contamination in shallow groundwater used for domestic needs, the study said.

"We went through thousands of records and found that we could go back and reconstruct less than 2 percent," said Andres, deputy director of the Delaware Geological Survey and one of the study's co-authors.

The uncertainty has left residents uneasy.

"I relocated here from New Jersey nine years ago, and I'm hoping I didn't screw up. It's in the back of my mind every day," said Mark Summerfield, who lives just south of the Delaware City Refinery.

Bill Wolfe, a former New Jersey state environmental regulator and national environmental advocate, blamed many chronic pollution threats on the failure by government and industry to make cleanups and control projects a priority.

"Time and delay increases the migration of plumes and makes the environmental situation and the economic situation worse," said Wolfe, who directs New Jersey's chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "There should be no surprises, but you often hear government and companies claim that there's no problem. 'The plume is stable. We're monitoring it' -- and then it shows up somewhere it wasn't supposed to be."

'You cannot clean these things up'

Troubles extend even to the state's farming areas, where Department of Agriculture officials are monitoring dozens of wells for contamination by herbicides and other farm chemicals. Tests a decade ago showed widespread, but low-level, contamination in surface aquifers widely used for private wells.

University of Delaware researchers who surveyed available tests reported in 2008 that contamination from pesticides, gasoline additives and organic compounds is widespread in shallow groundwater.

But until recently, Andres said, most state data collection programs have been unable to verify routine sampling even of at-risk wells, much less aquifers fouled by unreported pollution.

"It automatically is a public policy concern," Andres said. "How it's managed is something that gets negotiated, but in many cases, what's known is that you cannot clean these things up. It's technically impossible."

Pesticides have tainted shallow water across the state, although rarely at levels above safe drinking-water standards. The Department of Agriculture is monitoring levels in selected wells statewide on a long-term basis.

America's and Delaware's addiction to oil and love affair with cars have left other scars.

The banned gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is one of the more common organic chemicals found in groundwater, both shallow and deep.

DNREC and Division of Public Health officials have wrestled with several emergency MTBE well-contamination problems around the state, brought on by leaking service station tanks, traffic accidents and other spills. Hundreds of thousands of gallons were spilled or dumped onto the ground or surface waters at the Delaware City Refinery, where the additive was produced for years.

The University of Delaware labeled MTBE a "significant concern," citing discovery of the contaminant and other gasoline compounds in more than 100 domestic wells in recent years, forcing the replacement of dozens of wells and installation of home water treatment systems.

While the Delaware City petrochemical complex easily ranks as the state's biggest pollution and groundwater headache, no part of Delaware is exempt, said Gerald Kauffman, Delaware's water supply coordinator.

"I think we're fortunate that we're not seeing even more of these organic chemicals in drinking water," Kauffman said. "We have a lot of water in the state, especially groundwater. But we have to protect the quality. There are a lot of risks."

Source: Delaware Online
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