One of Riverhead Water District’s newest wells is producing water contaminated with perchlorate, a chemical known to affect the human endocrine system.

Well 16, located off Edwards Avenue north of Route 25 in Calverton, completed in 2011 at a total cost of more than $2 million, has been taken offline pending installation of a treatment system expected to cost as much as $555,000.

The Riverhead Town Board, which sits as the governing body of the Riverhead Water District, will hold a public hearing on the expenditure of water district funds to install the treatment system tomorrow at 2:10 p.m.

The source of the perchlorate contamination is not known for sure but the water district engineers believe fertilizers are to blame, Walter said.

Perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares and explosives, according to water treatment experts and health officials.

“Its widespread release into the environment is primarily associated with defense contracting, military operations and aerospace programs,” according to a Dec. 21, 2012 article in Scientific American.

2015_0105_well_16_mapThe well is located a few miles to the northeast of the former Naval Weapons Reserve Plant operated by Northrop Grumman until the mid-1990s. The plant straddles the regional groundwater divide. Groundwater beneath the northern half of the facility flows to the northeast and, ultimately, into the Long Island Sound, according to a 2003 water resources investigations report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Groundwater on the fluctuating divide flows generally to the east, USGS says.

But perchlorate is also present in some fertilizers. According to researchers at the Suffolk County Water Authority, “ammonia perchlorate was a principal ingredient in a fertilizer that was sold in the 50s and 60s” and used by farmers as an inexpensive crop fertilizer, former SCWA chairman Michael LoGrande told the Pine Barrens Research Forum in 1999.

Well 16 is considered a critical water source for the Riverhead Water District — without it, the district “would have run out of water” during peak demand times in summer of 2010, Dennis Kelleher, an engineer with H2M, the district’s longtime consulting engineers, said at a March 15, 2011 public hearing on a proposal to increase the new well’s capacity.

“We’ll have the system installed and the well back in service before summer,” Supervisor Sean Walter told RiverheadLOCAL last week.

The perchlorate removal treatment system, like the well itself, has been designed by H2M. The water district is currently soliciting bids for construction of the treatment system. Those bids are due Jan. 13.

Perchlorate levels at Well 16 have been increasing since the well was constructed in 2010 and have reached a maximum of 14 micrograms per liter, H2M engineer John Collins wrote in a Sept. 11, 2014 letter to the water district.

“In accordance with the requirements of the New York State Department of Health, if perchlorate levels in a well exceed 18 µg/l, then the well must be removed from service,” Collins wrote.

“Although perchlorate detections from the well have not reached this level, due to the uncertainty of groundwater contamination, the Town/District supervisor has determined te installation of treatment at this well is a top priority,” he wrote. Should the levels continue to rise and reach 18 µg/l, forcing the well out of service, the district would lose pumping capacity of 2.3 million gallons per day, which would “severely impact” its ability to meet peak demand, Collins said.

The federal EPA currently does not require perchlorate removal, though the agency is considering it. Two states, Massachusetts and California, currently have perchlorate limits much lower than New York’s; Massachusetts is 2 µg/l and California is 6 µg/l.

“We’re aiming for a non-detect level,” Walter said. He said no other wells in the district’s system have detectable levels of perchlorate.

The supervisor, who serves as chairman of the water district, said while he was “not happy” about the contamination at one of the district’s two brand-new wells, he was “very unhappy” he was not made aware of it until recently — even though the district engineers and superintendent knew perchlorate had been detected there since it first came online.

“The levels were not that high and they thought it would disappear,” Walter said. Instead, the levels just keep increasing, he said. “As we’ve been using the well, we’ve been pulling more and more perchlorate into the well. This is why this well was shut down at the end of September,” the supervisor said.

Well 16 was initially drilled in early 2010. The district had a $351,000 interim treatment plant — to provide for chlorination and PH adjustment — designed by H2M and installed at the site so the well could be brought online before summer. The original design was for a single well site that could pump about 2 million gallons per day, with a total construction cost of $1.58 million.

After the well was first brought online, H2M proposed that the district increase its pumping capacity from 1,380 gallons per minute to 2,000 gallons per minute — an extra half million gallons per day. The new total cost of well 16 was set at $2.18 million.

Walter said he does not understand how H2M could recommend “ramping up” the production capacity of well 16 when, he said, the firm already knew the water had perchlorate contamination, even though the levels were then “low.”

If H2M knew well 16 had a perchlorate contamination problem, it did not disclose it during the March 2011 public hearing on increasing the new well’s capacity.

H2M engineer Dennis Kelleher told the board “we had excellent water quality” when the well was drilled in 2010.

“In the spring of 2010 we were also — our firm was retained to design the permanent treatment system at Edwards Avenue. However, since we knew we had an excellent water quality and excellent quantity, we talked about could this site be increased in capacity either with a second well or could we increase well 16-1 for additional capacity,” Kelleher said, according to the meeting minutes.

Walter said he thinks the water district should solicit proposals for engineering consulting services to see what other firms can offer. H2M has been the water district’s engineering consultant for decades, he said. The supervisor since taking office in 2010 has been critical of the condition of the water district’s facilities.

He said he had the water district solicit a proposal from a second engineering firm, Dvirka and Bartilucci, to design the perchlorate removal system, Walter said. But H2M’s proposal came in at $15,000 less, so H2M was awarded the $47,500 design contract.

The town board last week appointed assistant superintendent Mark Conklin to the superintendent’s post, following Pendzick’s retirement earlier this month after 32 years as superintendent.

Walter said he’d like to wait until Conklin gets settled into his new role before considering any major changes to how the district is managed.

“Mark’s a sharp guy,” Walter said. “I have 100-percent confidence in him to do the things that need to be accomplished.”

 

Editor’s note: A statement in the original version of this story that the EPA considers perchlorate a “likely human carcinogen” has been removed. The EPA has not classified the chemical as a “likely human carcinogen” and says that, although perchlorate has been linked to cancer in laboratory mice, no studies have been done that indicate a causal connection between perchlorate and cancer in humans. The EPA in 2011 announced it would regulate perchlorate in drinking water because it is known to impede thyroid function in humans.  Thank you to reader Steven Lamm for bringing this distinction to our attention. 

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.