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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Sutton, In The NEK, To Treat Contaminated Public Well Water

Charlotte Albright
Jugs of water are used for cooking in the Sutton School cafeteria because the public well behind the school contains unhealthful nitrates.

After two years without safe drinking water, the Caledonia County town of Sutton has finally decided to filter and treat water from its contaminated well. The unacceptable levels of nitrates in the water can be highly dangerous to young children.

In a corner of the Sutton School cafeteria, a dishwasher gurgles noisily. It uses water from the contaminated well behind the school, because chemicals can be added to make it safe. But all drinking and cooking water must come from big, blue five gallon jugs delivered to the school periodically. Cafeteria cooks Talisa Giorgio and Jennifer Seymour are growing a little weary of this extra step in the kitchen. They use bottled water to cook pasta, for example.

“Yes, we have to pick these up and put them in pans,"  Girogio explains as she lifts the jug. “And what, it’s been two and a half years?”

“Something like that,” Seymour says.

That’s how long it’s taken the town of Sutton to decide what to do about the contamination of its well water. Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Deputy Division Director Ellen Parr-Doering says the nitrates were detected in annual tests required for public water systems.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Talisa Giorgio shows the water cooler that's been used instead of drinking fountains at the Sutton School in Caledonia County. The public well has been shown to have high levels of unhealthful nitrates.

“It’s an acute contaminant, and what that means is, it’s a contaminant that can cause immediate health impacts,” she says.

Parr-Doering suspects the source of the nitrates is manure spread on nearby farms, though that has not been proven. State Toxicologist Sarah Vose says nitrates are especially harmful to children under six months because they can create methemoglobin in the bloodstream.

“That methemoglobin cannot carry enough oxygen to sustain the baby,” Vose says.

“And our best solution is to treat it,” says Scott Spencer, Sutton’s select board chairman.

“We are surrounded by agricultural [land], so even though we could drill a new well and get good water, the next five years we could be right back in the same boat,” he says.

"We are surrounded by agricultural [land], so even though we could drill a new well and get good water, the next five years we could be right back in the same boat." - Scott Spencer, Sutton’s select board chairman

Spencer says the two largest farms in town have voluntarily reduced the amount of manure they spread, but not enough to lower the nitrates in the water to acceptable levels. He predicts water rates, which have historically been about $200 per year for each of the 20 users, will double soon, and eventually may quadruple, to pay off the $457,000 water bond approved by the select board last week.

Meanwhile, state regulators are worried that private wells are also polluted, but they cannot order tests or fixes for them. And they also warn that bottled water must be properly stored, and not for too long – otherwise, it, too, can create health problems.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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