When Sue Pacheco’s kitchen dish towels get wet with tap water, they quickly start to smell.
“Just heavy chemical smell,” she described it. “And it stays on your hands for awhile, maybe half a day. I have to change my dish towels all the time, daily.”
Pacheco lives in one of five homes with contaminated drinking water in the southern part of the town.
In her basement is a giant filter paid for by the town. When the filter needs to be changed, it can be an “all day affair”— an inconvenience for Pacheco.
She also thinks the contamination issue is impacting her ability to sell the house — she’s tried three times, unsuccessfully. “There were no buyers,” she said. “I even dropped the price low at one point.”
The water issue stems from an old landfill near the intersection of Cushman Road, Cementery Road and Teawaddle Hill Road. For more than 40 years, the town tossed trash in the dump, which has no liner underneath it. Now, the groundwater around the landfill contains a plume of contaminants.
The homes in the neighborhood near the capped landfill have wells, as the town has no municipal water supply. Some of the five homes, like Pecheco’s, have filtration systems from the town, and two have been receiving bottled water from the town for about 10 years, according to the Town Administrator Marjorie McGinnis.
“For years people just threw stuff on the ground and covered it up,” said Peter d’Errico, chairman of the Select Board. “The consequences have come around and bitten us — bitten the residents that have to suffer from it.”
Last February, residents of all five homes came together to form CLEAN!, or Citizens for Landfill Environmental Action Now! In late April, voters at Town Meeting unanimously approved an article with several potential solutions, including drilling deeper wells, connecting to Amherst’s municipal water system or studying how much it would cost the town to buy the homes.
Another vote is required, per Proposition 2½ rules, to authorize borrowing for the project, according to d’Errico.
The landfill opened in 1950 and took in household trash for 43 years before closing in 1993. It was later capped with impervious material. Comprehensive groundwater monitoring began in the early ’90s, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and the water is tested quarterly, town officials said.
The levels of some chemicals have decreased over the past several decades, DEP spokeswoman Catherine Skiba told the Gazette in an email. “However,” she wrote, “there are still unacceptable contaminant levels in the untreated groundwater of some private wells downgradient of the landfill.”
Manganese and 1,4-dioxane — which the EPA considers to be “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”— are the main issues, the DEP said. David Foss, a hydrogeologist consultant working for Leverett, said that manganese in water is common, but that the levels around the landfill are 10 times higher than in natural groundwater.
To mitigate this, some residents like Pacheco use filters or bottled water. Over the past 10 years, the town has spent about $500,000 on bottled water and monitoring for the neighborhood, d’Errico said.
The issue has frustrated residents. Patricia Duffy, who owns one of the nearby homes and started CLEAN!, got a new well from the town about 10 years ago. Sediment has been clogging up her filter though.
“It’s very stressful,” she said. “It gets through the filter and has ruined some of my appliances, like a dishwasher, a toilet, things that use water.”
The issue has made it hard for one of her neighbors who receives bottled water and has a newborn baby, Duffy said.
Pacheco said chemicals like volatile organic compounds found in the water are worrisome. “It’s a health concern,” she said.
“It’s a worry just knowing the town has to put all these filters in to take care of that,” she added, referring to the filters in her basement.
These type of chemicals in and around a landfill are very common, Foss said. What makes it more of an issue in Leverett is that homeowners use wells instead of municipal water supplies. Situations like Leverett’s tend to happen more in the western part of the state, where less people have municipal water, according to Foss.
“This is not an isolated issue by any means,” said Mary Jones, of Toxics Action Center, an environmental organization that has worked with CLEAN! and other citizen groups facing pollution issues.
Recently, Jones said she got a call from a Warren, Massachusetts resident drinking bottled water because of contaminants from a junkyard landfill.
“It’s the same story, different town,” Jones said.
Neither Duffy nor Pacheco knew the seriousness of their issue before they bought their homes in the early 2000s.
“The Realtor said it was nothing,” Pacheco said.
“It’s taken care of by the town. Don’t worry about it,” she recalled being told when looking at the house before buying it in 2006. “I think that’s what happened to most of us,” she said.
A Realtor, bank official, lawyer and home inspector were all involved in the sale of Duffy’s home, which was her first.
“None of those people said this is not cool. Nobody,” she said, adding, “Each of them sort of had a vested interest in not red-flagging this, to be honest. This was during the housing bubble … so they wanted to sell this home.”
Some members of CLEAN! have heard pushback, such as comments asking why they bought the home or why they don’t sell it, Duffy said.
“I just call it tag, you’re it,” Duffy said of the homes’ situation. “OK, you’re stuck with it, now let’s see if you can get rid of it. We don’t want to ethically pass it down to the next person and downplay it like, oh, it’s no big deal, they monitor it, you’ll be fine … That’s what happened to us.”
She wants to put an end to it, so she invited all her neighbors to her house for a meeting last winter, and they organized CLEAN! and with help from Toxics Action Center, they worked to publicize their issue.
CLEAN! backed an article addressing the problem at the Town Meeting on April 27. It contained three options: spend about $150,000 drilling new, deeper wells that would get water from below the contamination, spend $2.3 million connecting to Amherst’s waterline, or spend $20,000 assessing the fair market value of the homes so that the town can later purchase them when they go up for sale. In that order of priority, the article passed unanimously.
Foss, the hydrogeologist working for the town, said that a deeper well will go below the toxic chemicals and that if they put grout around it, contaminants from higher in the soil could be sealed out.
The second vote is scheduled for June 1, and a majority is needed to authorize borrowing.
On the heels of a successful Town Meeting vote, residents feel hopeful.
“I would like to see this stand out as an example of how a town can make people whole,” Duffy said. “It’s an example of a town taking responsibility for this throw-away society.”
“We were all really happy” Pacheco said, reflecting on the Town Meeting vote. “Finally something is going to be done.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org