Testing of discolored water seeping from the ground in the area of Washington County’s Old City/County Landfill into Conococheague Creek revealed an arsenic level almost double that of the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for drinking water, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman said.
At MDE’s request, Washington County has hired a contractor to investigate the issue and develop a remedial action plan, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.
An Aug. 3 sample of the seep area was found to have 17 parts per billion of arsenic, Apperson said. Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless element that has been linked to cancer and other health problems, according to the EPA, which has set the arsenic standard for drinking water at 10 parts per billion.
“These standards are usually set to be very conservative and protective of human health,” said Bruce James, a professor of soil chemistry at the University of Maryland, who said the finding should warrant monitoring and caution, but not necessarily alarm.
“If anybody were to have a well nearby, they might want to check it for arsenic,” James said. “I don’t think anybody needs to get concerned and go screaming to the doctor and that kind of thing.”
Washington County tested the water last summer after The Herald-Mail sent state and county officials copies of photos taken by an area fisherman of rust-colored stains along the bank of Conococheague Creek near the old landfill. Emmert Stine, who lives near the creek on Cedar Ridge Road, said he and his grandson, Wesley Truax, noticed the stains while fishing.
“Because of the location and appearance of the seep, MDE is acting under the presumption that this seep is the result of groundwater that has been contaminated by the old landfill that is escaping their groundwater collection system,” Apperson wrote in an email. “However, this is not conclusively demonstrated by this one sample.”
Arsenic was the only contaminant that exceeded maximum contaminant level standards in the sample, Apperson said.
However, there were other indicators of contamination from the landfill, including elevated salts and the presence of two volatile organic chemicals that did not exceed maximum contaminant levels, he said.
Volatile organic chemicals are emitted by substances such as paints, cleaning supplies and pesticides. The two found in the August sample were Chlorobenzene at 4.7 parts per billion and 1,4-Dichlorobenzene at 2.8 parts per billion, Apperson said.
“The iron, manganese, and magnesium present in the sample may account for the soil staining that make this seep obvious when the creek levels are depressed,” Apperson said.
No cyanide, cadmium, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, lead, selenium or zinc was detected, he said.
‘No cause for concern’
Washington County spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher said the test results are characteristic of landfill leachate, though iron from shale is high in the area even without a landfill present.
“The water that this seepage drains to is not a primary source of drinking water,” Sprecher said in an email. “This and any other contaminant entering anywhere along the Conococheague Creek is greatly diluted and is no cause for concern to the general public. Drinking water facilities have their own testing procedures to ensure maximum contaminant levels are not exceeded.”
Apperson also noted that the seep water is diluted when it discharges into the creek and that there are no drinking water systems that use Conococheague Creek downstream of the landfill.
“We do not consider that this poses any kind of health risk unless someone frequently drank from the actual seep itself, for a prolonged period of time,” Apperson said.
The arsenic level was well below the ambient water quality standard of 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life, Apperson said.
According to EPA’s website at http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/arsenic.cfm, “Some people who drink water containing arsenic well in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) for many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
James said the EPA’s maximum level for arsenic in drinking water was once 50 parts per billion, but it was lowered to 10 a few years ago.
“Usually the traditional way of (setting an EPA maximum contaminant level) is based on, if you drank this water for long periods of time, your chances of getting cancer or other health effects might exceed one in a million,” James said. “It’s very conservative.”
James said at the measured levels, arsenic is not acutely toxic if ingested.
“You wouldn’t get sick right away,” he said. “But you would develop various health problems slowly — problems with your liver, lesions on the skin.”
An unsettling problem
Nevertheless, the idea of landfill leachate contaminating the creek is unsettling to neighbors such as Stine, who said he had been concerned about the issue for years, but had been unable to get the county to do anything about it.
“There’s something got to be done,” Stine said. “You don’t know what it’s doing to the creek.”
Stine said he had noticed there are no longer any bullfrogs along the creek.
“When we lived back there, my kids and I loved the creek, and we’d go bullfrog hunting,” he said. “We went up to the creek one night (recently), clear up to where the water was running in. We got frogs above it. Below, there wasn’t any frogs.”
Apperson said the county samples Conococheague Creek on an annual basis, and results from 2010 show no exceedance of surface water quality standards.
“There is a partial groundwater collection system in place that removes about 2.7 million gallons per year of leachate from the landfill,” Apperson said in an August email. “In the past the leachate was discharged to the stream via a state discharge permit, but since the early 1990s the county has been pumping leachate and hauling it off site for treatment. The County has plans to upgrade the pumping system in the near future.”
Asked about the issue Friday, Washington County Board of Commissioners Vice President John F. Barr said it was the first he had heard about the issue or the county contract to develop a remedial action plan.
“Obviously, there’s some concern here,” Barr said. “It’s an issue that’s got to be dealt with, and I guess, if it is in fact the old landfill, it’s one of the long-term hazards of a landfill.”
Commissioners President Terry Baker did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The following laboratories offer testing of area wells for arsenic, according to the Washington County Health Department:
- Washington County Water and Sewer Department — 240-313-2600
- Fredericktowne Labs Inc. of Myersville, Md. — 301-293-3340
- Catoctin Labs of Thurmont, Md. — 301-663-5323