In Maine, lead test results prompt some worries, shrugs

by Patricia Borns, originally published on March 16, 2016

AUBURN, Maine — Potatoes boiled on the stove in Nancy Beliveau’s kitchen as twilight fell on Pleasant Street, a neighborhood of time-worn homes.

“Should I be worried?” the red-headed mom asked, descending to a basement tangled with a century’s worth of plumbing that brings the city’s water to her family and tenants — water that tested high for lead in June.

Beliveau got a notice in her water bill in the summer warning that “some homes in Auburn have high amounts of lead;” part of a public education campaign that included TV, radio and newspaper coverage.

“I didn’t read the whole letter because I thought it applied to other homes,” Beliveau said.

The Environmental Protection Agency directs public water systems to test a subset of homes built before 1986, when lead solder was prohibited nationwide.

Lead isn’t healthy in any amount. When tests come back higher than 15 parts per billion, a water system is required to take action.

The Auburn water system that serves 16,530 people tested at 20 ppb in June. It hired a consultant to recommend corrective action and expanded its EPA testing program.

“The theory is if you have a really old house, leaching lead is sealed off because the chemicals we add to the water coat the inside of the pipes over time,” said Sid Hazelton, Auburn water and sewer superintendent.

“The lead problem comes from the delivery system,” he said. “We can’t control the plumbing in people’s homes.”

In reality, the lead content from water in Beliveau’s and other homes or businesses could vary.

“That’s why we encourage people to get their water tested if they have concerns,” Hazelton said.

When Ed Stebbins looks across the Androscoggin River from his brewery, Gritty McDuff’s, he sees the defunct Auburn mill where his grandfather once made bedspreads.

“There are probably some pretty old pipes delivering water here,” the brewer and co-owner said. “But I’ve got to be honest with you. We do a water analysis every two or three years, and I’ve never had it come back with anything but excellent brewing water.”

Gritty’s water source is Lake Auburn — so clean it doesn’t require a filtration system, a claim few Maine water sources can make.

Stebbins is aware of the water contamination in Flint, Mich.

“But the quality of water in this area compared to when I was a child — there’s no comparison.” he said, recalling his grandfather forbade him to swim in the Androscoggin River as a kid.

Stebbins had heard of the lead problem in Bangor — that city’s water system was corrected over a period from 2010 to 2013 — but wasn’t aware Auburn had one.

“I think we’ll get another water analysis,” he said.

Krysten Gabri kept her bottled water near as she shaped peanut butter protein balls on a baking tray at Tripp’sPrimal Farm and Kafé.

Gabri, who lives on the Auburn-Lewiston line, said she had heard about the city’s lead test and drinks filtered water at home from a landlord who already had installed a drinking water tap with a purification system.

“I remember hearing something last fall,” bakery owner Mark Tripp, who was working his second job as an Auburn firefighter, said by phone. “I thought they related it to the older pipes on the resident side of the service.”

To Tripp and his wife Jennifer, who helps run the bakery, the city’s high lead reading isn’t a big deal.

“We wash a lot of dishes, but we don’t do much cooking with water,” Tripp said.

But just the thought of lead in drinking water has a chilling effect.

While Gabri started frosting cakes, her colleague Brittany Carrier had been listening to the conversation. She lives 30 minutes away and hadn’t heard the news.

Carrier filled her water bottle from the tap, took a swig and paused, uncertain.

“It has lead?” she asked.

The EPA advises running cold water a few minutes before using it to reduce the risk of lead.

Beliveau had her water tested, not for fear of lead but because of a stubborn yellow stain that rings her shower after a week of using the water.

“I said, ‘What is this?’ Beliveau said. “I had to keep scrubbing it down.”

Staff from Auburn’s water department came and told her the water tested normal, but the yellow stains persist.

“I don’t drink anything that comes out of the tap anyway because it’s gross,” said her third-floor tenant, Jerry Bartlett, who was just hearing about the tests that revealed high lead levels. “I drink beer, soda, juice — anything but that.”

Beliveau remained firm in her belief of the area’s good water quality.

“I’ve been to lots of other states, and Maine has really good water,” she said. “Talk about lead. It’s that yellow residue that really bothers me.”



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