Aroostook County schools clean up dirty drinking water

HOULTON, Maine — Hodgdon and Houlton school officials responded quickly to a recent state report showing high levels of contaminants in the schools’ drinking water. 

Both school systems contacted parents to report the findings and started making necessary changes to keep students safe. SAD 70 in Hodgdon opted for bottled water for the rest of the school year, and RSU 29 in Houlton has already replaced a number of faucets and water fixtures.

Maine’s new water quality testing rules require all public water systems to test for per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl contaminants, better known as PFAS, by Dec. 31. Additionally, a 2019 law requires all schools to sample taps used for drinking or cooking to determine lead levels at water sources. These include faucets in kitchens, lab sinks, drinking fountains and bathrooms. The safe state limit is currently 4 parts per billion.

Lead was present in 37 percent of faucets tested at Hodgdon Middle-High School and Mill Pond Elementary School. An initial test last November showed that the water at both the high school and elementary school was also positive for PFAS. A recent second test confirmed a level of PFAS contaminants above the current state standard, Hodgdon Superintendent Tyler Putnam said. 

The Hodgdon schools were among the first in The County to test for PFAS. When initial results came back in early December, the school immediately switched to bottled water and coolers of water for drinking and cooking. When the second test came back last month the schools were already using bottled water, Putnam said, adding that it did not affect their routine. 

“At this point now, we’ve put a committee together of local experts. We were lucky enough to have an engineer who has been working with PFAS for many years, volunteer to come in and help us understand PFAS,” Putnam said. 

The water committee came up with three options: Dig another well; carbon filters or the possibility of hooking the school water system in with Houlton Water Company, Putnam said. 

The committee ruled out digging a new well, because of the uncertainty of the water quality. 

“You just don’t know when you are digging a well. You could dig a few different spots and test and still have PFAS,” Putnam said. 

Hooking into the Houlton Water Company is a major undertaking and the water company must first take it to their board, he said. 

“If they are up for it, then they will come back to us to see if we will go forward with that option,” he said, adding it would be a $1 million project and the school would have to seek funding. 

Regarding the lead, Hodgdon is working with McPartland’s Plumbing to see if the lead is coming from the faucets or pipes. 

“They are going to come in and switch out a couple of fixtures at our elementary school and at our high school to see if it’s the actual fixture that the lead is in,” he said. “If that’s true, then we will change out all the fixtures.”

Seventy percent of Houlton High School faucets had lead levels far exceeding the state standard of 4 parts per billion. The kitchen steamer was 302 ppb, the drinking fountain outside the welding shop was 29.9 and the school had an average of 18.4 ppb.

All drinking fountains found to have higher levels have been shut off and will be removed or replaced with updated combined drinking and bottle fill stations,” Houlton School District Director of Operations Joe Fagnant said. “We have already replaced 10 or more porcelain water fountains in the district. These also have filter units, which we replace on a regular basis.”

The new units are showing less than 1 ppb, Fagnant added. 

The state lowered the standard from 15 ppb to 4 ppb, Fagnant said, adding that if the standards had not changed only a handful of unused or little-used faucets would not have passed.

“The majority of the fixtures over 4 ppb were sinks in the science labs and areas of the building that are not being used and are not used for drinking,” Fagnant said. “As far as the kitchen steamer at HMHS, that unit is not being used. Four of the highest level areas at HMHS are not in use and will eventually receive upgrades or be terminated.”

The recent report shows 15 additional County schools with lead levels above the state standards. These include: Central Aroostook Junior and Senior High School, 67 percent, average 12.2 ppb; Fort Street School, Mars Hill, 75 percent, average 5.4 ppb; Easton Elementary, 49 percent, average 7.5 ppb; Mapleton Elementary, 38 percent, average 13.3 ppb; Fort Fairfield, 67 percent, average, 17.2 ppb; Limestone Community School, 63 percent, average 34.6 ppb; Dawn F. Barnes Elementary, Caswell, 84 percent, average, 37.3 ppb; Van Buren District, 33 percent, average 638 ppb; Wisdom Middle and High School, Saint Agatha, 39 percent, average 5.8 ppb; Madawaska Elementary, 31 percent, average 5.5 ppb; and Fort Kent Elementary, 38 percent, average 6.8 ppb. 

State water rules say schools must remove all fixtures with lead levels above 4 ppb and they must notify interested parties by Feb. 23.