Per the recommendation of the Department of Environmental Protection, the Falmouth Water Department conducted a second round of tests after a water sample taken from a Waterside Drive fire hydrant had 21 million asbestos fibers longer than 10 microns per liter.
Massachusetts drinking water standards set a maximum contaminant level of seven million fibers of asbestos per liter. While the sample taken from the fire hydrant exceeded that standard, Water Superintendent Stephen D. Rafferty said the DEP does not use fire hydrant samples for these tests.
“They had a lot of concern that we had sampled from hydrants and created, according to them, a non-representative sample of what you would be drinking from a faucet, because of the amount of water that comes out when you open up a hydrant,” Mr. Rafferty said at Monday’s, January 13, board of selectmen meeting.
The DEP asked the town to conduct a follow-up test. The town collected additional samples from taps at the five fire stations and the Safe Harbor Fiddler’s Cove marina. This marina was selected because of its proximity to Waterside Drive, and will provide a sample representative of the Wild Harbor area. The samples have been sent to a laboratory in New Jersey for testing.
“By the end of the month, I expect to have another group of sample results in hand,” Mr. Rafferty said, adding that he will seek additional guidance from the DEP at that time.
The results of those tests will be announced to the press or at a future board of selectmen meeting.
Selectmen chairwoman Megan E. English Braga confirmed that the DEP did not issue any orders regarding the drinking water in Falmouth.
“Their recommendation was we need to redo the testing from taps,” Ms. English Braga said. “There is nothing to do now until we get those results back from the five fire stations and Fiddler’s Cove.”
Noting there had been three water main breaks on Wild Harbor Road in the past year, Leonard W. Johnson of Wild Harbor Road asked if those breaks affected the results. Mr. Rafferty said when the town has a water main break, DPW workers isolate as small a section as they can and flush the impacted area after the repair.
“I think we need an explanation about what in the world 21 million parts of anything per liter means,” Mr. Johnson said. “It sounds like a lot of something to me, but what does that really mean?”
Mr. Rafferty said the maximum contamination level is based on testing in mice, and means a person has a one-in-a-million chance of developing benign polyps if he/she drinks a liter of contaminated water every day for 70 years.
“Any maximum contamination level that gets published is a very conservative number based upon creating a high degree of safety,” Mr. Rafferty said, and is based over 70 years, not a one-time exposure.
Michael G. Heylin of Cliffwood Lane said it iss inappropriate to wait, and a letter should be sent to residents now. He called the test results a heath concern for everyone in town, particularly those in the Wild Harbor area.
“I would recommend that the select board and town manager foot the bill for anyone in Wild Harbor who wants their faucets tested,” Mr. Heylin said. “I’m not saying the taxpayers. I’m saying that out of your salary, and your salary, and your salary, and his salary, you offer those people a home asbestos test because of the lack of management and lack of oversight of several higher-ups in the town, these people have to live with the fear intestinal polyps and there have been studies of stomach cancer and rectal cancer.”
He said it is not worth taking the one-in-a-million risk that a person might develop benign polyps.
“I feel that you all, in the staff, the higher-up staff, keeps making excuses and no one is taking responsibility saying, ‘We screwed up, this is a health crisis,’” Mr. Heylin said. “I’m waiting for the day Flint, Michigan, starts protesting for Falmouth. Falmouth doesn’t have clean drinking water. There is an issue, and none of you are taking it seriously.”
Selectman Douglas C. Brown disagreed with this assertion.
“I think Mr. Rafferty is taking this more than serious,” Mr. Brown said. “To go out and go to the end of the line and test fire hydrants is above and beyond. If he wanted to play it safe for himself, look good, and not have to deal with you, he could have just tested taps and he’d probably have been fine. But he went as far as he could, to do the best test that he could, and put himself at risk to really find out what was really happening, and I commend him for that.”
Mr. Heylin asked if Mr. Rafferty conducted the sampling. Mr. Rafferty said the samples were collected by operating staff members with the necessary license required by DEP to conduct sampling.
Marc P. Finneran of Teaticket said regular flushing of the town’s fire hydrants could have prevented this level of asbestos fibers in the sample. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency gave Falmouth two violations for exceeding acceptable levels of disinfectant byproducts in the drinking water. After this, he said, the town was required to complete a directional flush of the entire fire hydrant system by 2018.
“As of today, we still have not had a complete directional flushing of our system since 2013,” Mr. Finneran said.
Mr. Rafferty confirmed this point. He said with more than 310 miles of pipe and more than 3,000 fire hydrants, flushing the system is a time-consuming process.
“We have not flushed the entire system,” he said. “We have flushed all of the southern peninsulas, we have flushed up through Sippewissett, we flushed going up towards North Falmouth, and this spring, with luck, we will finish the flushing all the way up to the Bourne line, west of the highway, which will leave an area between Sandwich and coming back toward the plant.”
Mr. Finneran said other towns flush their systems annually. The National Fire Protection Association recommends fire hydrants be exercised annually, in conjunction with a directional flush.
“If the board wishes me to do that, I will come back to you and identify the resources needed to do that,” Mr. Rafferty said.
The initial round of testing came following concerns about the storage of asbestos cement pipes within a fenced-in area on Pumping Station Road near the Long Pond watershed. In addition to the fire hydrant on Waterside Drive, the town tested water samples collected at Long Pond, Crooked Pond, Mares Pond and fire hydrants on Bar Neck Road and Seacoast Shores Boulevard.
The Seacoast Shores Boulevard sample tested at 2.1 million fibers per liter. All other samples were non-detectable.
Mr. Rafferty provided selectmen with an update regarding the ongoing storage and disposal of asbestos cement pipes in town.
“We have contracted with a firm we have worked with, they did an inspection and put together a plan to abate the situation, and the Department of Environmental Protection has reviewed that plan,” Mr. Rafferty said. “They are currently scheduled to be here at 8 o’clock on Wednesday morning. They are predicting two to four days to remove the existing pipe from the storage area and dispose of the asbestos in accordance with state and federal regulations.”
Asbestos cement pipes will be stored in a 20-feett-long shipping container, which was delivered on January 6. The container will be lined with a quarter-inch-thick polyethylene sheeting. A portion of this sheeting has arrived; the rest is scheduled to be delivered later this week. Once delivered, DPW staff will line the shipping container.
“Once that is all set up and in place, we anticipate doing a contract with Banner [Environmental] or a similar licensed asbestos abatement firm to come in on a monthly basis and pick up whatever we have accumulated in a month to dispose of it,” Mr. Rafferty said.
Mr. Heylin said that at the December 12 meeting, Mr. Rafferty said the shipping container would be lined by the town’s abatement contractor. Mr. Rafferty said that was the plan. Due to the expense involved, he decided to instead have local staff install the sheeting.