There’s What in My Water?

Editor's note: Ten years ago this month, the water supply in the village of Pascoag, in the town of Burrillville, was contaminated by the now-banned gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a petroleum byproduct that replaced lead in gasoline as an oxygenating agent. Many gasoline companies termed it an “anti-knocking agent.” The petrochemical has been shown to cause cancer in rodents. As of 2007, it had been banned — partially or fully — in 24 states, including Rhode Island.

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PASCOAG, R.I. — After bringing a new wellhead online in early 2001, the Pascaog Utility District and its customers felt pretty good about the safety of their water supply, but that all changed within a few months. During Labor Day weekend of that year, local residents were robbed of their drinking water supply by the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) due to a gasoline storage tank leak the likes of which Rhode Island had never seen, and thankfully, hasn't since.

Though the official detection of MTBE and public-use restrictions on Pascoag's water didn't begin until September 2001, after resident George Reilly had his water tested by a private firm in late August, as early as May and June of that year, some Pascoag residents reported a foul smell and taste to their water. Bacterial contamination in new wells is not uncommon, and the Pascoag Utility District (PUD) did what most other water supply agencies would do in a similar situation: it increased the chlorination levels of the town’s water supply. While that is an effective treatment for bacteria, the increased chlorine levels in the water could have masked the odor and taste of other contaminants, such as MTBE.

The initial water advisory was issued by the PUD and the state Department of Health (DOH) on Sept. 3, when Pascoag residents were urged to not drink the water and advised to make sure that rooms were adequately ventilated when bathing, showering and doing laundry.

At the time, June Swallow, DOH chief of drinking water quality, said the Pascoag problem is the worst, although not the first, case of water contamination in Rhode Island by MTBE.

Theodore Garille, PUD’s then manager, defined the priorities for his agency: determining the source of the contamination; finding an alternative source of water; and arranging for treatment of the district’s existing water stores.

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) immediately began drilling testing wells — 16 in all — in the area surrounding the town’s wellhead. Today, DEM monitors more than 120 wells, drilled at various depths in the bedrock aquifer under Pascoag.

The next day, DOH advised private well owners to test their water for MTBE. On Sept. 7, the PUD and DEM announced that MTBE levels at the wellheads were within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines — 40 parts per billion, or ppb — and that the testing had not yet indicated the source of the MTBE.

Four days later, while another crisis was coming to a head in New York City, the PUD and DOH enacted an outdoor watering ban and reported that the source of the contamination had not been verified, but testing was beginning to indicate the direction of the chemical plume. Groundwater at the village’s wellheads showed consistently elevated levels of MTBE.

Donations of cash and bottled water began rolling into the village.

On Sept. 13, the source of the contamination was identified and compliance orders were issued by the DEM to Main Street Mobil and the town of Burrillville. The town was ordered to examine the effectiveness of an ongoing remediation effort at a public works facility and determine the downgradient of the underlying aquifer, but the real culprit turned out to be the gas station. The monitoring well closest to Main Street Mobil was found to have 7 inches of standing gasoline.

On Sept. 17, officials reported that tests conducted after a delivery of gas to Main Street Mobil, MTBE levels in the groundwater spiked from 392 ppb to 657 ppb. Main Street Mobil was owned by a series of shell corporations, including Potter Oil and Medea LLC, but ultimately was owned by Robert L. and Mary Ellen Laverdiere.

The source of the contamination had been found, but this drama was far from over — and begins well before 2001 with regards to MTBE spills and the owners of Potter Oil. After the spill in Pascoag, rather than pay for a costly remediation or face any civil or criminal charges, the Laverdiere's declared bankruptcy and remain — to use the detective novel parlance — in the wind.

During the next four months, MTBE levels in the contaminated aquifer continued to rise, peaking at 42 times the EPA guidelines — 1,700 ppb — in December 2001. November saw the evacuation of some buildings — including an assisted living facility — and the installation of an air exchanger on the home of Craig Waltz, all due to benzene fumes. Waltz became one of the major claimants in a recently settled class-action lawsuit.

During that time, in addition to residents being forced to cook with and drink bottled water and bathe, shower, and do the dishes and laundry with a window open, a host of legal, regulatory and electoral issues came to bear on the people of Pascoag. Bureaucracy, differing policies from DEM and DOH, and some might say stubbornness kept the people of Pascoag without a public water supply until mid-January of the following year — and paying double what most Rhode Islanders pay for public water to this day. DEM was left saddled with the remediation and monitoring of an MTBE plume that threatened to bankrupt its Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Program, if not for support from the EPA.