APPLETON — In what was described as possibly the first test of its kind, Appleton officials discovered the town well has four contaminates and needs filtering, blasts of bleach and possibly even ultraviolet light treatments to make it safe and drinkable.

The water supply only impacts the town office and volunteer fire department next door on Sennebec Road. It it is not a public water system per se as it does not supply residences or businesses even though it services the two public buildings. Homes in Appleton are on private wells and homeowners are responsible for their own water quality.

Locals make free use of this spring and cistern. Photo by Jack M. Foley

The town well problems will be remedied by water treatment starting in February and will range from filtering systems and water softening to the possible use of bleach and ultraviolet light to kill coliform bacteria.

These contaminate problems are very common in area wells and some folks just live with it and have for many years, according to Jack Martin of Haskell’s Water Treatment of Rockland. The firm has been hired to treat Appleton’s town water.

“It’s a vey common problem, nothing I would be extremely worried about,” Martin said, adding that the iron and manganese found in Appleton’s well, “we see in almost every test we do.” The firm has close to 150 clients in Appleton and every well is different and everyone reacts differently to what’s in their water, he said.

What is being done for the town “is not a cure, it’s a treatment,” Martin said, because it cannot address the sources of the pollutants so the water will continue to need filtering.

The Select Board approved spending about $9,055 on the effort. However, it will be done one step at a time and all of the recommended treatments might not be needed, according to Select Board member Peter Beckett.

“We are not sure we are going to be doing all of it,” he said, because they might find the ultraviolet light treatment is not necessary after other options are tried.

“We’ve approved the whole thing but we are going to take it bit by bit,” Beckett said.

The covered spring is just off the pavement on Burkettville Road and folks have been seen filling barrels with its water. Photo by Jack M. Foley

The first step will be a “shock” treatment with bleach to rid the system of coliform, probably caused by groundwater intrusion, Martin said. That will be followed by tests to make sure it worked before moving to the next step, Beckett said.

A series of carbon filters will be used to rid the well water of arsenic, iron and manganese, Martin explained. The filters will then be changed periodically as they wear out.

Realization of the town well pollution prompted a Select Board decision to find out if water from a cistern on Burkettville Road that is popular with public is safe to drink. Martin said there are dozens of homeowners in the area who use such springs for their water supply because their well water is undrinkable.

It is clear from maps that the Burkettville site is in the Town of Appleton, but it is unclear who owns the land. Under state law, it is the owner’s responsibility to make sure such spring water is safe and that potential users are warned if it is not safe.

Town leaders know the cistern gets a lot of use, but they do not know about the water quality or how people are using it, Beckett said.

People have been observed “filling big barrels of water, so we feel we should test it,” he said.

The site is just a few yards off the pavement on the the east side of Burkettville Road, or Highway 105, just north of Snow Road. There is a worn spot where it appears people regularly pull off the road and park to get water.

Martin said he is not familiar with the spot. The only issue he has heard of in the region had to do with a spring on Mt. Pleasant. It was several years ago and he does not know what happened with it, he said.

The Burkettville Road cistern itself is made of concrete. It is about 30 inches in diameter and is topped by a round, white wooden cover with a handle. It sits about a foot or two off the ground. On Nov. 23, it was filled almost to the brim with what appeared to be clear water. It was uncertain if the water was seeping up from underground, was piped to the structure, was part of a well system or came from a small, constant runoff stream that flows beside the road through the site.

“Just lift the lid and the water is right there,” said Beckett. He has visited the site and seen others use it. There are perhaps four or five such springs  in the area, he said.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Service’s Division of Environmental and Community Health has a website page devoted to the state’s many roadside springs.

It makes it clear that the water is popular but not always good, noting, “The problem is that not everyone knows if the water is safe to drink. The owner of the land where the spring is located is responsible for ensuring that the water flowing out of the spring is safe to drink. The Drinking Water Program recommends monthly bacteria testing of all roadside springs. These tests demonstrate whether or not the spring is bacteria-free. If the spring is not bacteria-free, the people who use the spring must be notified and the owner must take steps to be sure the spring is not contaminated.”

The webpage further notes, “Several communities have made the effort to improve springs to meet modern water quality standards. If your community has a spring that you’d like to improve and maintain, give us a call at (207) 287-2070 and we’ll put you in touch with some of these resources and offer advice about the steps you can take to make your spring safer. Keep in mind that just because the water ‘tastes good’ or ‘looks clean’ doesn’t mean that it is safe to drink. It’s best to make sure.”

It was unclear if Appleton reached out to state health officials for information or assistance.

As for the Appleton well, Beckett said, “This is the first time we have actually had a water test done.” In the six years he has served on the board, only bottled water has been used in town offices and the volunteer fire department next door.

Testing was done because the water did not taste good, not because anyone knew something was actually wrong with it, according to Beckett.

That is often one of the issues with such water problems, according to Martin. Many folks have used water with the same issues for decades, he said, and everyone reacts to contaminates differently — not at all or with reactions such as stomach problems, headaches, lethargy or diarrhea.

When the well issue arose at a Select Board meeting several months ago, it was mentioned that the supply of bottled water at the fire department will not go far if wells in town start to fail and residents turn to the town for help.

That led to the decision to have the water tested. The analysis was done for Haskell’s Water Treatment by A & L Laboratory in Auburn.

Samples were taken on Sept 15 and analyzed on the following two days. Results show problems with arsenic, iron and manganese that fail one of two EPA standards and also somewhat notable coliform levels. Sixteen other measurements, such as copper, fluoride and lead, were within acceptable ranges, according to the analysis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says that arsenic is naturally occurring in the earth or can come from industrial or agricultural pollution. Symptoms of ingestion can include “nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of ‘pins and needles’ in hands and feet.”

Maine’s Division of Public Health Systems says this about iron and manganese on its website:

“Most water contains some iron and manganese which naturally leaches from rocks and soils. Found naturally in soils, rocks, plants, and most water supplies, these minerals are essential to human health. Excess amounts in drinking water can cause discolored water, rusty-brown stains or black specs on fixtures and laundry. Excess amounts may also affect the taste of beverages and can build up deposits in pipes, heaters or pressure tanks. Iron and manganese in the amounts found in most drinking waters are not harmful to health.”

As for coliform, the site says it can come from human and animal intestines and can be found in plants, soils and surface water. “Presence of these bacteria indicate that other harmful organisms may be present in the water. Water containing any coliform bacteria…should not be used for drinking or cooking unless boiled for 5 minutes or disinfected by other means.”

Water from the Town of Appleton’s municipal well goes to the town office and the volunteer fire department, but cannot be used until treatment slated to begin in February 2023 is complete. Photo by Jack M. Foley