A much higher-than-normal level of E. coli bacteria found in a 36-inch wide pipe at Snow Marine Park did not originate in the park, Rockland Wastewater Treatment Facility Director Terry Pinto said.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection tested about 14 locations throughout Rockland Harbor June 9, according to an email Pinto received from Melissa Evers, a state DEP stream specialist. The large stormwater discharge pipe, which empties into Rockland Harbor, had high levels of E. coli bacteria that were also elevated in the nearby mooring field, Evers said.

Pinto said the state tests the quality of harbor waters not just in Rockland but throughout Maine. He also emphasized that all other Rockland locations tested by the state, including the main harbor waters, were clean.

Pinto said the city used closed-circuit television cameras inside the pipe June 18 and found that it runs underground through the park up to Mechanic Street, crosses the railroad tracks, and continues north. The city is still determining its point of origin.

The city tested the E. coli level at the pipe and found it to contain 2,000 bacteria colony-forming units per sample, where the accepted level is 400.

"None of this discharge is coming from Snow Marine Park," Pinto said. "I can say that with a high degree of confidence."

A storm drain culvert near the center of the park will also be tested as soon as the city receives more rain, he said.

E. coli is a species of fecal coliform bacteria that is specific to waste from humans, dogs, and other warm-blooded animals as well as seagulls, Pinto said. The presence of high levels in water indicates possible water contamination.

Pinto, who noticed many people releasing their dogs in Snow Marine Park without leashes as their dogs relieved themselves, said it is regrettable when they do not carry plastic bags to clean up after their pets. He noted that brochures from the Maine Healthy Beaches program mention that while just one gram of human waste contains 13 million fecal coliform bacteria, that number is 23 million — nearly double — for dogs.

The city has an ordinance that requires people to pick up after their dogs. But Pinto said the answer is education, not policing or confrontation between interested parties.

"I don't believe in bothering people or harassing people, that's totally wrong," Pinto said. "It's about education. Most people will clean up after their dogs when they understand how important it is. Also, don't feed seagulls to the point where they start to accumulate. All of these things lead to water contamination."

Pinto said he may need to make recommendations to the city going forward, once the source of contamination is found. Enclosed dog parks may be part of the solution, he said.

City residents Valerie Hooper and Linda Athearn have made their position on properly cleaning up after one's dogs well-known to the city, including during a recent City Council meeting. The city's ordinance needs to be enforced, they said.

Hooper and Athearn have also advocated for at least one enclosed dog park in Rockland, while voicing their belief that the city has not taken their concerns seriously enough.

Athearn said dog waste contaminated her dog and made it sick, which cost her more than $3,000 in veterinary bills.

The city has also found high levels of E. coli bacteria recently at sites including The Knox Center for Long Term Care and the U.S. Post Office. Pinto said one possible cause could be unsecured dumpsters, where rain seeps into containers and E. coli is released.

Courier Publications reporter Larry Di Giovanni can be reached at 594-4401 x. 117, or by email at: ldigiovanni@villagesoup.com.