Tainted water creates a divide

Harford neighbors split over linking to public system

October 16, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

The plan, however, has divided residents — The discovery of a toxic industrial solvent in wells in a Harford County subdivision has prompted officials to put together a $2.2 million plan to connect the entire 84-home community to a public water supply.

The plan, however, has divided residents - some of whom oppose the cost of adding their homes to the public system.

The Maryland Department of the Environment began testing wells in the Glenn Heights community near Havre de Grace two years ago, when a U.S. 40 shopping center nearby was razed and traces of trichloroethylene, a volatile organic compound often used as a cleaning solvent, were detected in the soil.

The investigation found nine contaminated wells in the subdivision. Low levels of the industrial solvent were detected in about two dozen other wells, MDE officials said.

Connecting all of the homes in the subdivision to the public water system would end the contamination, which otherwise could continue for several years because of the geological makeup of the area, officials said.

Residents, many of them retirees, voted 39-38 last month against the hookup; there were seven abstentions. The Harford County Council will decide whether to override the will of residents in this neighborhood of 40-year-old ranchers and Colonials and assess each household a share of the costs.

The County Council could decide the issue as soon as tonight. Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she is concerned with affordability, given the predominance of fixed-income residents and their "no" votes.

Lisanti, who represents the community, asked: "Can we ignore the public will here?"

TCE, used mainly as an industrial solvent, can remain in groundwater indefinitely and can migrate, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Ingesting TCE can cause liver and kidney damage and impair immune system function. Studies with mice and rats have shown that ingesting high levels of the chemical can cause cancer, according to the National Toxicology Program.

"If you have public water and abandon your well, you guarantee that you have eliminated the risk pathway," said Jim Carroll, the MDE's administrator for land restoration. "Our goal is to protect public health, and a public water line is the long-term solution to this problem."

State inspectors have not been able to determine the source of the solvent that is releasing gases slowly through the soil. Nor do they know how long it has been in the fractured rock beneath the homes, when or where it will move or when it will dissipate, MDE officials said.

While his nearest neighbors rely on water filtration systems installed by the MDE, Al Montgomery has been lucky. He said he has clean water and great pressure. So he sees no need to cap his well and switch to the county's public water system.

"If I had problems, I would be looking at this in a different way," said Montgomery, a 70-year-old retired plant manager and an original owner in the subdivision. "But to break mine to fix theirs is just railroading us. Who knows if we haven't been drinking this stuff since Day One?"

Lois Wright, who lives across Titan Terrace from Montgomery, has a filter constantly clearing the water of contaminants that have leaked into the ground. Montgomery "is sticking his head in the sand," she said. His well situation could change at any time.

"Our contaminant levels went up after the investigation began," said Wright. "This stuff moves. Nobody knows how or why they are here. Why take a chance when there is a solution?"

State and federal agencies have provided grants to cover the estimated cost of design and construction of the $2.2 million project and made available a $454,000 loan to allay other costs.

But the offer comes with a caveat: All of the owners must cap their wells at their own expense and connect to the public system within three years of construction. The water would come from the Susquehanna River, through the Havre de Grace treatment plant.

The county would assess homeowners $318 annually for the next 30 years, officials said.

Opponents said there are other costs, many of which are not covered by the grant, including the county's $3,727 fee to connect to its water system. The connection fee also does not cover the cost of plumbing work that might be needed inside the homes.

"I definitely can't afford it," said Freida Peck, 82, who recently spent nearly $2,000 for well upgrades. A $300,000 offer to buy her home fell through last summer when the water situation was disclosed.

Public water could enhance the value of homes, said Darlene Flaxman, a Bel Air real estate agent.

"Most buyers want public water," she said. "Most have never been on a private system and are scared of the unreliability and concerned with contaminants."

Sally Woomert, 74, said she has a clean well but is willing to assume the connection costs for the sake of her neighbors.

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