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Students at Hartland Elementary School are drinking bottled water after traces of a gasoline additive were found in the school well. The state has been providing bottled water to the school for drinking and cooking, after traces of MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, were found in the well in July. The school year started last week.
The contaminant has been traced to a July 1997 gasoline spill. An Irving Oil tanker truck spilled 50 gallons of gas when it went off Quechee Road and tipped over near the intersection with Merritt Road, three-quarters of a mile from the school. "The plume of MTBE is migrating east toward the Connecticut River," said Hartland Town Manager Robert Stacey.
MTBE has been added to gasoline since 1979, replacing lead as an octane enhancer. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has monitored MTBE levels in that area of town since the spill, said Robert Haslam, state project manager of waste management. But as the contaminant worked its way eastward, the school's well was also tested every month starting two years ago. Haslam said the well will be sampled every three or four weeks in the near future. "The first positive detection was in July," he said. "It was approximately .6 parts per billion. That is extremely low."
The Vermont Department of Health drinking water standard for MTBE is 40 parts per billion, he said. The next test, sampled on Aug. 23 just before school started, also recorded .6 parts per billion. "That is about as low as can be detected with modern instrumentation," Haslam said. Although the water is still safe to drink, he said, the state is providing 10-gallon water coolers to the school — primarily for peace of mind. "My understanding is that the bottled water coolers are located adjacent to the existing bubblers," he said, referring to the school's drinking fountains.
Principal Judith Callens said the school would continue to use the state-provided water until several more tests have been done. "We have unplugged the regular drinking fountains," she said. "We want the kids to use the bottled water." The kitchen staff uses regular tap water to clean vegetables and wash the dishes, Callens said, but when a recipe calls for water, the imported water is used. "I have no idea if this is going to turn into a large problem or not," she said. "The state has been working with the town and the school for several years and has been ready to respond if any level of MTBE has been found in the water. They have been very responsive."
Ellen Parr Doering, compliance manager with the state's Water Supply Division, said Wednesday that she oversees all public drinking water systems for the state. The water quality at Hartland Elementary right now is fine, she said. But because there's a possibility that a plume of groundwater contamination may be on the way, the state wants to be proactive, she said, and is providing the bottled water.
Haslam said that if a person drank 2 liters a day of water with a level of 40 parts per billion of MTBE for a lifetime, they could be expected to have a one in a million increased chance of illness. "It's a very conservative standard," he said. "The health effects associated with exposure to these compounds are related to time and exposure over years." He said there has been a dramatic reduction in the concentration of these compounds over time in Hartland and he expected that to continue.
"As far as predicting how long any detectable concentration of MTBE will remain, it gets difficult," Haslam said. The gasoline spill is not expected to affect surface water like streams or ponds, he said. The contaminated water is moving eastward, and it's also diminishing in concentration as it moves, he said. "The natural processes of attenuation are reducing the contaminant concentrations over time," he said. "It's a very fortunate thing."