Legislators and residents in rural parts of Connecticut are calling on the state Department of Public Health to improve the quality of water for people who rely on private wells – but there is no agreement on who should bear the costs.
State Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, told the public health committee that over the last decade, the state has seen an uptick in the number of complaints regarding sodium chloride, the same chemical used to salt roads during the winter.
Nuccio said that her town, Tolland, had 68 wells contaminated with sodium chloride, the highest concentration of well contamination in the state. She said there are people in her who have 600 times the recommended level of sodium in their wells.
“It’s more salinated — their water is — than the ocean,” said Nuccio.
The committee is proposing two bills to address well water contamination.
Repair or Replace
One gives the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection the ability to require municipalities to “repair or replace” contaminated wells.
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, testified against that bill, saying that the cost to municipalities to repair the wells would be high and that it was difficult to determine who was to blame for contaminated well water.
Although the legislation would allow municipalities to apply for state grants to cover the costs of well repair and replacement, Gara said such grants would not cover the full cost.
Gara instead recommended increasing funding to allow the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to test well water and increasing funding to extend water mains to connect people with contaminated well water to a public water system.
Katie Dykes, Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection also testified against the bill, arguing that in many cases contamination could be addressed through treatment rather than replacing a well.
Existing law allows the department to require municipalities to provide clean drinking water to residents with contaminated well water. Yet Nuccio pointed out that bottled drinking water wasn’t enough for people to use to do their laundry or shower. She said this can cause its own health problems.
“Their grandkids come over, they give them a bath, and they come out with really red, rashy skin,” she said of some residents in her district.
Khristine Hall, a New Fairfield Resident, also testified in support of the bill, saying she felt it would “provide recourse for residents whose wells have been damaged by the acts of others, including the State.” Hall, who shares a private well with three of her neighbors, said she attributed the water’s chloride levels to the state Department of Transportation’s use of road salt.
“The high levels of chloride have cost me and my neighbors quite a bit of money. I have had to replace the hot water heater in my home three times in the last six years,” Hall wrote in her testimony. “I have spent well over $10,000 in the last six years to try to maintain safe water in my home.”
Nuccio said she felt the parties responsible for the contaminated drinking water — including the state — needed to assist residents with paying for the cost of fixing the wells.
“If we’re causing it, then we have to find a way to remediate it,” she said.
Testing the Waters
A second bill, which has met broader agreement,, would require private wells to be tested for contaminants at the time of a property transfer. Lori Mathieu, the Department of Public Health’s
public health section chief, said that many of the 322,000 private wells in the state have never been tested, or have only been tested once.
The department would test for total coliform, nitrate, nitrate, sodium chloride, iron manganese, lead, arsenic, and uranium – among other potential contaminants.
Mathieu said these requirements are not as stringent as in some other states, which require annual testing of well water. She added that having well water tested in advance would give property owners better knowledge about the water quality before buying the property.
“We’ve run into many situations where … a homeowner who just purchased a home for hundreds of thousands of dollars didn’t realize what the water quality was or what the treatment needs are,” said Mathieu.
Mathieu said the bill would result in the testing of about 10,000 private wells per year.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, raised concerns about PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of the length of time they require to break down.
Mathieu said the state is receiving about $40 million over the next five years from the federal Infrastructure and Investment in Jobs Act to address PFAS in a limited array of water systems, including those used in schools and in municipal buildings. She said that 725 water systems in the state will be eligible for the PFAS remediation through the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, also raised concerns about the department’s staffing.
Manisha Juthani, Commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said she was working on a workforce development plan that could serve not only the Department of Public Health but also local health departments to oversee drinking water in the state.
“That people can turn on the tap and feel comfort that they’re getting safe drinking water is such an essential, important aspect of an industrialized society,” said Juthani.