Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: East Hampton Star

Is the Groundwater Safe to Drink?

Contamination is a risk in places where private wells are shallow


Posted: April 1, 2011
Originally Published: March 31, 2011

The Ross School held a tap-versus-bottled water forum at its Wainscott campus last Wednesday, featuring a panel of experts who explained the benefits of drinking water from a safe faucet rather than from plastic containers with pretty pictures of glaciers that are filled with water that is, in fact, from Montclair, N.J.

“New Jersey is known for a lot of things,” said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, “but pristine water is not one of them.”

There was discussion of the plastic detritus islands “twice the size of Texas” that are floating around in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but it was comments about groundwater by Andrew Rapiejko and Doug Feldman of the Suffolk County Department of Health that drew the most interest from the audience.

“You’re living on a sole-source aquifer,” Mr. Rapiejko said. “It’s sandy and susceptible to contaminants. Whatever you pour down your sink will eventually end up in your groundwater.”

Contamination is not a crucial issue with water that comes into dwellings through shared mains; these public water systems are carefully monitored by the Suffolk County Water Authority and Department of Health. “The concerns are with private wells which are not tested regularly,” Mr. Rapiejko said.

There are more than 260 public water-supply systems in Suffolk County, and the Department of Health regularly takes samples from those pipes. However, old pipes within individual houses can make the water more mineral-rich, or force levels of copper, iron, or lead higher than what is considered safe. In other words, what goes into the house is not necessarily what comes out of the taps.

Mr. Rapiejko spoke of private wells in Northwest Woods that were contaminated by a nearby illegal drug lab. “It started with someone having their water tested,” he said. The results were high in solvents and dry-cleaning fluids, chemicals used to create methamphetamine. “Then a hydrogeologist — someone who determines which way the water is flowing — tracked it back to the source.” The lab, he said, had subsequently been shut down by the authorities.

“This is a shallow water table,” Mr. Rapiejko continued. “Some private wells are only dug to 40 feet to prevent saltwater intrusion. Those wells are more susceptible to contamination.”

In the public water supply, by contrast, the Suffolk County Water Authority uses trace amounts of chlorine to fight bacteria, as well as small amounts of hydrated lime to soften the water which, on the East End, “is notoriously mineral-rich,” said Carrie Meek Gallagher, the authority’s chief sustainability officer. Public water is frequently tested. “In fact, we have adopted methods of testing that have now been implemented by bigger municipalities,” she said.

When asked directly by an audience member, “Is our groundwater contaminated?” Ms. Esposito replied, “You betcha! Not everywhere, but in many places” on the East End.

Herbicide and pesticide runoff from farms and golf courses has long been a point of interest for advocates of clean water. But now, the panel said, the stakes have been raised as pharmaceuticals are beginning to make an appearance in private wells across the country.

“Forty-one million Americans are drink­ing some pharmaceuticals,” Ms. Esposito said. “The most common are heart medication, anti-convulsants, anti-depressants, and hormones.”

Ms. Esposito was adamant: “If you have a private well, you need to get it tested. Ignorance is not bliss, ignorance is dangerous. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Tests that can identify more than 300 different contaminants are conducted by the Suffolk County Department of Health for about $100. The application is available on the Suffolk County Government’s Web site, under “Office of Water Resources.”

Private companies also offer well-sampling services. Rich and Maryann Flood of Microtest in Sag Harbor sample private wells on the East End for a living. “We test hundreds of wells each year,” Mr. Flood told The Star

“Most of the water is not problematic,” he said. “But the reason you test it is to make sure.”