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CHARLTON – Three homes using private wells on H. Foote Road had water sample test results that were in excess of the state standard for 1,4-dioxane, a toxic chemical.
The homes are within a half-mile of the Casella Waste Systems-operated landfill in Southbridge, and the results now call for the waste management company to conduct sampling on wells at homes in a wider radius, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said this week.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies 1,4-dioxane as a probable human carcinogen. The state standard for groundwater is 0.3 micrograms per liter, essentially 3 parts per billion.
DEP spokesman Edmund J. Coletta Jr. said that of the three homes where the chemical was detected above that level, one is a repeat from last year, bringing the total to four homes.
Casella is providing those households with bottled water, Mr. Coletta said, and the DEP is requiring that Casella conduct additional sampling on homes “within 500 feet of these particular wells that were tested and found to be contaminated.”
Charlton Board of Health Chairman Matthew Gagner said there are approximately 43 to 45 houses within a half-mile of the landfill that get their well water tested on a rotating annual basis.
Mr. Coletta said the Charlton Board of Health over the years had required Casella to sample water from more than 20 homes, and recently signed up an additional 20-plus homes. The latest detections came from the latest signups, the spokesman said.
Although it cannot be said with certainty that the landfill is the source of the dioxane, Mr. Coletta noted that “these types of contaminants often do appear from landfill facilities.”
But the chemicals, a solvent that is often used in consumer products, from time to time discharge from private septic systems into ground water, he said.
“At this point Casella is still gathering information and data as far as where these contaminants might be coming from,” Mr. Coletta said. “The likely source would be the landfill, but that review continues.”
He went on to classify dioxane as having a long-term exposure window.
One would have to be exposed to the 3 parts per billion standard for 70 years “to have any kind of health effect,” he said.
In addition, an excessive level of a volatile organic compound called trichloroethylene, or TCE, was found in one of the three homes, he said. The standard is 5 parts per billion and the home had 12 parts per billion.
“That’s not a drinking water issue; it’s a volatilizing issue, say, in the shower,” Mr. Coletta said. “If you’re breathing in TCE it could volatize in a hot shower, and you’d be breathing that in.”
The exposure level is more of an issue for women of child-bearing age, Mr. Coletta said.
“You’d have imminent hazard if you were breathing it in 24 hours a day,” he said. “So long as you’re not breathing it in 24 hours a day you’re probably not hitting it at that level.”
TCE was present in another home, but below 5 parts per billion, the DEP official said.
As a consequence, Casella this week will be required to conduct air sampling in both homes by placing canisters in areas of the homes where the chemical might volatize, such as the bathroom. After 24 hours the canisters will be taken to a laboratory for testing.
Mr. Gagner of the health board said his board and the town are concerned about the high levels.
“You have got to somehow pinpoint where the source is coming from, and then find out who’s responsible for it,” he said.
Mr. Gagner said Casella is paying for a new well for about $5,000 and that is “mighty neighborly,” but it's a double-edged sword in that it almost makes the company look guilty.
At any rate, Mr. Gagner said, the high levels would appear to justify Casella holding off on its plan to expand operations onto 5.2 acres it owns in Charlton, subject to multi-jurisdictional scrutiny and local and state approval.
“I can’t see this,” the test results, “helping public relations one bit,” Mr. Gagner said.
He suggested that a public water supply would help solve the problem.
“I don’t know how feasible it is,” he said. “But you look at other situations that Charlton has had, in general, like the petroleum spills that DEP puts ExxonMobil on the hook for, and makes ExxonMobil rectify that situation.”
In this case, with the landfill on its third operator (since 1979 or 1980 it was run by Southbridge and then the former Wood Recycling, before Casella assumed operations in 2004), Mr. Gagner suggested that the landowner, the town of Southbridge, could be responsible.
“They’re the ones that are benefiting from this landfill to the tune of a couple million dollars a year,” he said. “They’re the ones making the money. Does the DEP at some point mandate public water be put in for that? Who holds the bag on that?”
Kirstie L. Pecci, a Sturbridge resident and staff attorney for MassPIRG, said she’s very concerned about the exceedances that showed up in the home tests.
“The problem is that these tests were just an afterthought,” Ms. Pecci said. “There are a lot of homes not covered by these tests because they didn’t sign up for this program. My concern is about folks on Berry Road and H. Foote Road that have not been tested yet. Meanwhile they’re unaware and using water for drinking, cooking, bathing, showering and everything else to do with water. That’s the real concern, making sure that these folks get some protection and there’s remediation.”
She added: “I don’t think the DEP or town of Southbridge should be allowing an expansion” of a facility that may be contaminating or will contaminate groundwater in the area.
Ms. Pecci said Tuesday that she had received emails from about a dozen concerned Charlton residents who live in the area. She urged them to express their concerns during Tuesday night’s Board of Health meeting; discussion about Casella is on the agenda.
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