Dagsboro explains response to contaminated water

Early on Nov. 28, Dagsboro Mayor S. Brad Connor admitted he was disappointed by the tenor of the criticisms he and other council members had received in the wake of the recent contamination of Dagsboro’s central water system.

Many of those comments had been accusatory, he said, suggesting council hadn’t been overly concerned that some of the 66 customers who’d hooked up to the new water system didn’t receive written notice until nearly a week after state agency testing confirmed there was a problem.

Town council gave the floor to water project engineer Chuck Hauser (Davis, Bowen & Friedel) and Ed Halleck from the Department of Public Health (Office of Drinking Water) at the Nov. 28 council meeting, in an effort to clear the air.

Hauser presented the timeline, and Hallock added a few details.

• On Oct. 14, state officials discovered traces of an industrial solvent in water at a Boys and Girls Club extension in Dagsboro, during random testing.

• At that time, Hallock said, they weren’t sure if this contamination had come from a private well or the town’s central water system. The club is located at the Dagsboro Church of God, which had only recently hooked up, and they weren’t sure if it was completely integrated yet, he said.

• The state took additional samples around Dagsboro on Oct. 17 and 18, Hauser said, and then in Millsboro on Oct. 19. They suspected the central water system was contaminated, Hallock said.

• The state confirmed those results on Friday, Oct. 21.

• On Monday, Oct. 24, Delaware Health and Social Services (DHSS) sent the notice to the towns and the media that people should stop drinking Dagsboro’s municipal water. Local television and radio stations, and newspapers started broadcasting the notice on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

• The Delaware National Guard brought tankers full of fresh drinking water to Millsboro and Dagsboro that same day.

• Between Nov. 4 and 7, crews installed the treatment system at Millsboro’s municipal wells (the source of the contamination), and the towns were flushing fresh water in, contaminated water out, by Nov. 12.

“Some areas are below the (maximum contaminant level, or MCL), or very close,” Hauser noted. “The areas that are still above the MCL are being flushed again today.” He said they’d be sampling again later in the week.

Halleck said they still weren’t sure what had happened, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) was still looking into it. “We do know it’s isolated to the public wells in Millsboro,” he added.

DNREC was drilling some monitoring wells in that vicinity, and if they managed to identify the responsible polluter, Halleck said, they’d be able to recoup some of the costs the town of Millsboro had incurred.

Millsboro Town Manager Faye Lingo has estimated the costs for purchase and installation of the water treatment system in the $150,000 to $200,000 ballpark.

Council Member Jamie Kollock put it to the point — “Did the towns respond adequately?” he asked. Halleck said they had indeed sent notice well within the mandated two-week timeframe.

This had been a “Tier 2” notification, he pointed out — “for other violations and situations with potential to have serious, but not immediate, adverse effects on human health” (as described on the Environmental Protection Agency Web site).

The offending contaminant, trichloroethylene (TCE), can cause liver and kidney damage, and possibly cancer, but only after long-term exposure.

Halleck said they weren’t sure how long the water had been contaminated before the Oct. 14 test picked it up, but tests in May had come up “no detect.”

“We don’t know if the contamination has been steady since then, or steadily increasing since then,” he said. “But we do know we’re looking at months, not years.”

The May testing, conducted in Millsboro, was actually an extra — the state typically tests for “volatile organics” just once a year,” Hauser pointed out. If not for that test, residents might have been left wondering whether they’d been drinking contaminated water since last October.

However, in light of the recent problem, he said they’d be testing more frequently. (The state tests for bacteriological content, a more common problem, much more frequently — every two or three months, he said.)

In the event of a more serious contamination event, where short-term exposure could cause acute health problems, Halleck said, officials take a more vigorous approach to public notice, going door-to-door or calling people on the telephone.

Even so, he said it was virtually impossible to notify everyone at the same time. If they hung notices on front doors, they received calls from people complaining that they never used that door, Halleck pointed out.

Planner Kyle Gulbronson of URS (on retainer with the town) asked about the use of a “reverse 911” system in such a case.

“It’s been considered, but we don’t think that’s going to be practical at this stage,” Halleck replied.