School and Town Water Supply Turn Up Pollution — Lyme-Old Lyme Officials Suggest Older Origins

Center School, Old Lyme (Credit: CT Examiner)


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In emails on Thursday and Friday, Superintendent Ian Neviaser told parents and staff that the recent tests revealed Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs – chemicals found in petroleum or released when wood or coal is burned – in one of the four deeps wells supplying water to the middle school, the high school, and Center School. 

Results from one well showed that two of the PAHs detected in the water were double the level recommended by the GroundWater Protection Council, a group of state water regulatory agencies that came together to form a nonprofit. Two other chemicals are about 1.5 times the recommended levels. 

But Neviaser told parents that it was unlikely that the pollution was the result of the August oil spill, based on what he referred to as a number of “unofficial” conversations with DEEP and DPH employees and other community members with expertise. 

“While not impossible, based on the distance from the suspected contaminant plume, the direction of groundwater flow, the relative depths of the wells (well #7 is 605 feet deep), the location of our potable water wells, and the relatively short time period that has elapsed, the probability that these chemicals are from the August oil spill is extremely low if not nonexistent,” said Neviaser in an email. 

The drinking water at the schools was tested in August and October in a routine quarterly test for volatile organic compounds — chemicals often found in petroleum fuel, paint thinner, cleaning products and pesticides. However, Neviaser told CT Examiner that the water, which comes from four different wells, had previously only been tested in aggregate.

Last week, the company that administers the district’s water performed a more detailed test of the school drinking water under the direction of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, testing each well separately and including additional tests specific to oil-related compounds. Neviaser said that DEEP had recommended the test, which the district was already in the process of doing, at an administrative meeting last Friday that CT Examiner was not allowed to attend.  

Asked about the recent results, Board of Education Chair Steven Wilson told CT Examiner that he believed the additional test was done “out of an abundance of caution.”  

After the spill in August, the district drilled monitoring wells around the schools revealing elevated levels of a variety of petroleum-related pollutants at two test wells located in the direction of groundwater flow between the Middle School and nearby neighbors on Lyme Street. The tests also show levels of “total petroleum hydrocarbons” of 260 ug/L – or parts per billion – above the state’s contaminant threshold of 250 ug/L, with levels of benzene and benzo(a)anthrecene slightly exceeding state standards. 

Neviaser said that DEEP advised the additional testing on wells providing drinking water to the school after the district filed a formal Significant Environmental Hazard report to the agency based on the results from the monitoring wells. According to Nevaiser, the wells that provide water to the schools are on the opposite side of the building from the contaminated monitoring well. He said that only one of the four wells that provide drinking water have shown signs of chemicals exceeding legal limits.

“We have since tested the blended water at the entry point and are awaiting the results.  We expect the blended water to be well below the guidelines,” Nevaiser wrote in an email to parents.

Neviaser said that, in the meantime, the district had shut off the contaminated well and was providing the schools with “alternative water sources.” He said he had notified Town Hall and the Lyme Youth Service Bureau yesterday. Both buildings receive water from the school wells.   

According to Neviaser, the district was required to test all the neighbors’ wells within 500 feet of the oil spill. He said that all the wells came back negative for heating oil-related chemicals. 

Asked about the spill and the latest results, First Selectman Timothy Griswold told CT Examiner that he wasn’t clear whether the source of the chemicals in the new well was from the original oil spill in August or from something else, given the well’s location. 

“I think before, it seemed like it hadn’t migrated off the school property that much. But if [the chemicals] are starting to show up in other places, that would be a bit concerning,” he said. 

Griswold said he was first notified about the oil spill at a meeting with the superintendent and Lyme’s selectman in January, a timeline that differed from one provided by Neviaser, who said he had informed Griswold of the oil spill in August.

“I think there could have been a better notification process,” Griswold. 

But Lyme First Selectman David Lahm said that he remembered being notified in the fall about the oil spill, during a leadership meeting. He said he did not believe there was an unreasonable lapse of time between when the spill occurred and when he was informed. 

“I don’t see anything out of the ordinary in the way [the district] handled it,” said Lahm. 

Asked about the spill and about pollution found in the school drinking water, Martha Shoemaker, who sits on the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education, declined to comment, referring questions to Wilson and Neviaser, saying that “they speak for the BOE.” 

Wilson told CT Examiner that he was satisfied with the way Neviaser is handling the situation. He directed other questions to the superintendent. 

Neviaser told CT Examiner that, based on the location of the well, it is possible that the contaminants are not from the recent oil spill. Instead, he said, they may have been left over from 2011 when the district removed a leaking oil tank, or it may be runoff from I-95. 

He also told CT Examiner that the district is in the process of installing a cleansing system for the groundwater in the Middle School.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Shoemaker as vice chair of the Board of Education.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.