State: Nitrates Hazard to Town

DEP says Wellfleet must take the health threat seriously and improve its water.

(Cape Cod Times 3/24/99)

WELLFLEET - This village on a hill overlooking a harbor is one of the most picture-pretty on Cape Cod, but that picture is marred by drinking water the state considers a threat to public health. Last month the state Department of Environmental Protection wrote a letter to the town warning of a public health threat from nitrates from septic systems and urging that the town begin planning for a public water supply for the central district. However, selectmen say voters are not ready to pay for such a system, and some residents in the affected areas prefer to continue drinking bottled water, believing a townwide water system will just encourage more growth. After the DEP's latest tests showed more than 20 percent of the small shared wells in Wellfleet were contaminated by significant levels of nitrates, and three were in excess of the federal standard, the agency started procedures to close a restaurant and popular theater that use one of the wells.

The DEP monitors quarterly tests on private wells that serve restaurants, cottage colonies or businesses with 25 or more users and has the power to shut them down. Wellfleet has no townwide municipal water system - no wells, water mains or fire hydrants. The DEP also reviewed a town report on its own testing of private household wells in the central district, which showed that more than 36 percent of those wells were contaminated by nitrates. "They undertook that study to show there was no problem down there," said Michael Quink, an environmental engineer in the DEP Water Supply Program for the Cape Cod Basin. "It's that study that opened our eyes." The central district is generally considered bounded by Main and Commercial streets and Holbrook Avenue and includes adjoining streets. The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and the adjoining Uncle Frank's restaurant on the harbor share the same well cited by the state. They are in court trying to prove their rights to the off-site well so it can be drilled deeper, beyond the contamination.

The town has no power to close private wells.
Nitrates get into ground water from septic systems and cesspools. While they are also found in fertilizers, both the state and the town agree the nitrates found in the water in the central district is from septic systems being located too close to wells on lots too small to relocate either system. The state letter points out that excessive levels of nitrates are especially harmful to infants under 6 months, causing illness and death. An increased rate of stillbirths, birth defects and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, as well as bone disease in adults, have all been linked to drinking water with high nitrate levels. Lawrence Dayian, DEP's chief of the drinking water program for the Southeast Region, did not feel the town was acting promptly enough to protect citizens. "This is a public health issue. We don't send out these letters that often," Dayian said. "There needs to be at least a plan. The impression we are getting is that it is being ignored."

Nitrate levels in 16 of these private wells were over 10 parts per million, the standard set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for public water supplies. Some of the private wells tested as high as 20.9 ppm, more than twice the federal limit. The town has taken some steps toward resolving the problem. After the DEP ordered open septic waste lagoons in landfills closed in the late 1980s, they recommended that Wellfleet add a sewer system to the downtown area and build a waste treatment plant next to the landfill. The town set aside land for the plant, but the proposal died over the estimated $10 million to $12 million price tag. At an estimated cost of $4 million to $6 million, a public water supply was the more attractive option, even though there were practically no federal or state grants available for such a project. Town Health Agent John Chatham said the town has earmarked property adjacent to the Cape Cod National Seashore as a possible wellfield. But after years of fruitless town proposals, and still no concrete solution, the DEP is growing frustrated. "The folks down in Wellfleet just don't think that it's worth their money," Quink said.

Selectmen believe a multi-million dollar municipal project that benefits only 300 homes and businesses out of 3,000 town dwellings will be a hard sell to voters. There are about 2,500 year-round residents; the town swells to 15,000 in summer. "We're not opposed to having it eventually," said Selectman Lawrence Gallagher. "But not now. It'll get shot down." Gallagher said the board has a lot of other projects with high priorities, like building a new public works garage, dredging the town marina and renovating the fishing pier. He estimated it might take five years, and a lot of voter education, before they tackle a public water supply.

In the densely populated neighborhoods bordered by Main and Commercial streets, the sentiment does not run high for putting in public water. Many drink and cook with bottled water. Some even see the problem as a way to keep the village quaint by limiting development. "I'd like to see the illnesses they can prove," said Sheila Kelly, whose water tested above the commission standard, but below the federal limit. Her big fear was "getting swallowed up" by development after a public water supply is introduced. Carol Abbott has been drinking bottled water and giving it to her pets for more than 20 years. "I don't think the state is exaggerating, but I don't foresee anything quick happening. It's been going on a long time," she said.

Some just hope the problem will go away - that switching to better septic systems will alleviate the problem. Joe Lema, who owns Lema's Supermarket in the center of town, has had low nitrates in tests of his well. He also spent $18,000 recently to upgrade his septic system. "Yes, it concerns me. Who has a crystal ball? Supposedly I had to put in the septic system to protect water so I would not have to get to this stage," Lema said. According to Tom Cambareri, Cape Cod Commission Water Resource Program manager, upgrading septic systems would only improve water quality by 5 percent, and would not solve the nitrate problem. Gallery owner Sally Nerber can testify to that. Her remodeled home has a beautiful view of Duck Creek. Despite a state-of-the-art septic system, it also tested at 20.9 ppm for nitrate last spring. That's more than twice the federal limit. "I wouldn't be averse to contributing to (a public water supply)," she said. "But if my neighbors were to hear me say this, they wouldn't like it."

In the town survey, levels above 5 ppm showed up in 87 of the 239 private wells tested. That is above the amount allowed for new construction and redevelopment under the town's local comprehensive plan, and is the limit endorsed by the Cape Cod Commission. Nitrates also occur naturally in rainfall. Cambareri said the level for all of Cape Cod for naturally occurring nitrates is less than a half of 1 ppm. At 1 to 3 ppm, Cambareri said septic system nitrates are almost certainly infiltrating drinking water. "At 3 to 5 (ppm) you're seeing some pretty serious impairment," said Cambareri. "At 10, you're almost drinking water from an effluent plume."