Water issues challenge The North Salem Central School District

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In mid-March, a “Do Not Drink” Advisory was issued for Pequenakonck Elementary School following the discovery of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in the schools' water systems at levels above New York's recently adopted Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) of 10 parts per trillion. Separately, in mid-April, pictures circulated on Facebook of a beaker of brown water inside a science classroom at the North Salem Middle School / High School. While the North Salem Central School District’s water issues are currently top of mind for many parents as well as current Board of Education candidates, conversations with administrators, state officials and independent water experts reveal that it’s been an ongoing--and vexing--challenge for years.

In response to the brown water at the Middle/High School, North Salem Board of Education president Deb D’Agostino wrote, “let me first say that the water quality at the MS/HS is not acceptable to either the Board or to the administration.” D’Agostino went on to detail a capital project master plan first conceived in 2017 for a water filtration system to be installed on the school’s campus.

“Capital projects such as this require approval by both the State Education Department (SED) and the Westchester County Department of Health (DOH). The water filtration project was designed and then submitted to both agencies early in 2019. In the spring of 2019, we received SED approval. To date we have not received DOH approval. We have not let this languish. We have performed numerous water and well capacity tests as per DOH request and our engineering firm has been relentless in providing them with information.”

When reached for comment, a Westchester County DOH spokesperson referred all inquiries to the New York State Department of Health, as the primary agency for all New York State public water supplies. A New York State DOH spokesperson said that the process was progressing normally despite having a lot of moving parts, and suggested that approvals were likely to come within the next month.

Johannes Sieverding, Interim Director of Facilities for the North Salem Central School District (NSCSD) shared copies of water sample testing reports conducted at the MSHS in April 2020 by Aqua Environmental Lab, based in Newtown, CT. The reports indicate that the water at the time of testing did not pose a health hazard, as evidenced by the absence of coliform bacteria.

Kenny Muller, owner of Interstate Artesian Well Co. Inc. in Greenwich, CT explained that coliform is considered an indicator bacteria, a type of bacteria used to determine the sanitary quality of water. Coliform bacteria have been used for nearly 100 years as standard microbial indicators for quality testing. “The theory is that since coliform is omnipresent in the environment, if there’s a negative test for coliform, there is no need to test for E. coli,” Muller said.

The water testing report does show levels of iron and manganese above specified limits set by the DOH. These elements are what cause a brown appearance, both Sieverding and Muller said. Muller said that brown water even after boiling, which is what the Facebook post inside the science lab likely showed, results upon heating or exposing water to oxygen. “The minerals will cling to each other and form a brown or orange particle,” Muller explained. “That’s an aesthetic issue.”

Sieverding said of the brown beaker of water, “that sample is not desirable at all. I think everybody would agree with that.”

What makes the issue particularly challenging for the district is that high levels of iron and manganese are typical of well water. “With deep rock wells, the primary issues are minerals,” Muller said. One remedy would be to apply a food-grade coating to the interior of water pipes to keep the water from taking up the metals. The plans set forth by the District to address the water issue include the installation of new piping and fixtures.

Jim Savarese, President of the NSCSD Teachers Union, said, “we continue to experience issues that are facilities related in both PQ and the MS/HS and have pushed for building level committees at both buildings to enhance communication and ensure the work environment is safe for students and staff.” Savarese acknowledged that there is, “a certain amount of frustration at all levels,” including administration, maintenance and union for the “expense and work that needs to be put into infrastructure needs.”

“It seems like there is a reasonable plan in place to address our water issues in both the short and long term. We are committed to partnering with the administration to address those--and other issues here--and in helping to prioritize the work to be done in the District’s next 5-year plan and bond,” said Savarese.

Sieverding said that the District is awaiting final approvals on its water filtration project, for which it has allocated $900K. In a note sent to families Tuesday, D’Agostino said of the costs, “we created a reserve fund to cover construction costs and began putting money away for repairs to the water system. Those funds cannot be used for other purposes.”

The proposed water filtration system is designed to reduce the levels of iron and manganese in the water. Sieverding said the District worked with its engineering firm, Fellenzer Engineering, LLP, to make modifications to the system, including carbon filters, to also address PFOA and PFOS. The NYS DOH spokesperson confirmed that the District has modified its previous proposal to accommodate the new standards.

Once the DOH approves the District’s proposed plan, Sievering said the District will immediately go out to bid.

“Hopefully if we get the approval, we can go out to bid, put the thing together and have it on line by summer,” Sieverding said.

In the meantime, students and staff at the MS/HS with refillable bottles may access drinking stations with activated carbon filters. At PQ, bottled water has been provided since the “Do Not Drink” advisory was issued and a few water coolers have recently popped up in the building. "Cups are not supplied at this time," said Superintendent Ken Freeston.

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