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School's water could be tainted

January 17, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Students and personnel at Fountain Rock Elementary School will be drinking bottled water because of a risk the school's well could be contaminated by its septic system and sinkholes, school officials said Thursday.

About 20 water coolers were expected to arrive at Fountain Rock by today, said Dennis McGee, the school system's director of facilities management.

The elementary school becomes the third in Washington County - joining Conococheague and Old Forge - to use bottled water.

The Maryland Department of the Environment in October ran surface water contamination tests at Fountain Rock Elementary. Personnel placed dye, which traces bacteria, in the school's septic system and in some sinkholes near the school off Md. 68.

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"They flushed dye down the toilet and it came up in the well," said Alex McNamee, public health engineer with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The dye from the sinkholes also showed up in the well, he said.

The Department of the Environment determined the school's well water was "highly vulnerable to the risk of contamination." It recommended the school system put bottled water at Fountain Rock and upgrade the school's water filtration system, McNamee said.

McGee said the school system has to install a new filtration system at Fountain Rock by January 2004, at a cost of $50,000.

Tony Surrano, environmental safety specialist for the school system, said he tests monthly for bacteria in the four schools that get their water from wells - Fountain Rock, Old Forge, Conococheague and Greenbrier elementary schools.

Of the four, only Greenbrier has had no problems, he said.

Students and staff at Old Forge and Conococheague elementary schools have been drinking bottled water for more than seven years, Surrano said.

At Old Forge Elementary School, the well was found to have mild traces of contaminated surface water. McGee said that in the past, traces of pesticides were found at Old Forge.

The MDE told the school system to upgrade the water system at Old Forge. McGee said that filtration system would cost about $50,000.

Traces of iron were found in the well water at Conococheague Elementary, McGee said. He said iron only discolors the water.

Surrano said an iron removal system was installed at Conococheague after the problem arose. But he said the school still uses bottled water to ease the minds of parents.

McGee said the school system has been spending about $3,000 a year on bottled water.

Custodians check and maintain chlorine levels at each of the schools' water systems daily, according to Surrano.

The schools' well systems are fairly sophisticated, but they are surrounded by farmland, which can develop sinkholes that allow rain water to seep into the wells, McGee said.

"It's a typical scenario in the geology of Washington County because there's a lot of limestone," McNamee said.

At Fountain Rock, the tap water may be used for washing hands because it is still being chlorinated, but it is not to be used for drinking or food preparation because it is possible the contaminants could seep through, McNamee said.

McNamee said it is likely Fountain Rock has been experiencing the contamination problem since it was built in 1970.

"I don't see anything different in the geology," he said.

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