Towns Seek Groundwater Protection Ordinance

Ossipee — March 4, 2011 — There is a giant reserve of drinking water under six towns in Carroll County. This March, those towns are proposing ordinances to keep it clean. The Ossipee aquifer basically is water suspended in a layer of sand. It stretches from Crawford Notch to Saco, Maine. It supplies the well water to the towns in between.

These towns are proposing new ordinances to keep the aquifer clean: Ossipee, Freedom, Effingham, Madison, Tamworth and Sandwich. Ossipee and Madison already have groundwater ordinances in place.

Although the Ossipee aquifer is very large, it is also very fragile, according to Blair Folts and Tara Schroeder of the Green Mountain Conservation Group, which is educating people about the aquifer and endorsing the ordinances. They will be celebrating National Ground Water Awareness Week from March 6 -12.

The Ossipee aquifer is the largest aquifer of its type in New Hampshire. It’s among the largest in New England. Generally, the underground water flows toward Ossipee Lake.

“In a way, it’s like an underground Lake Winnipesaukee,” said Eric Senecal of Lakes Region Planning Commission.

The premise of the ordinance is to keep high-risk land uses away from the aquifer because water flows quickly through the porous soil and so does pollution. For example, said Folts, about six years ago there was a gas station on Route 16 that had a leak. The gas spread through the aquifer. The leak was not the fault of the owner but serious damage had been done, she said.

“The family across the street couldn’t take a shower because there was gas in their water,” said Folts. “It’s been five or six years and it’s still being cleaned up.”

The cleanup took place where M&V Convenience/Video now sits in Ossipee.  The leak cost the state’s spill mitigation fund $704,000, according to records from the Department of Environmental Services.

Over the last 21 years, about $3.5 million has been spent from the New Hampshire Petroleum Fund to clean up various spills in this region. In total, the fund has shelled out $187 million for contamination cleanup  since 1990. That fund is now drying up, which could force towns to absorb the cost of cleanup in the future.

One of M&V’s owners, Mark McConkey, said the underground gas plume was created from a leak that started before he and his business partner bought the building. McConkey said they put new and improved tanks in the ground before they opened the gas station. Unfortunately it took a few years for the gas plume from the old leaky tanks to spread into the neighbor’s property.

“We had no spills that would have caused it,” said McConkey who added the both the neighbor and store have safe water now. “We’re on the hook for the plume because we are the current owners of that property.”

McConkey, a Republican state representative from Freedom, has been most involved with Ossipee’s ordinance because that’s where his businesses are located. McConkey said Ossipee got rid of problematic sections such as the one that could have prevented business owners from discharging storm water on their own property. That section would have  required a storm water management and pollution plan for businesses that are not able to maintain a four foot separation above seasonal high water table.

However, McConkey said all the other towns have kept similar language on storm water. That’s not such a big deal if the planning boards “are willing to make changes and listen to reason,” he said.

“This entire section will cost potential development or an expanding business expend tens of thousands of dollars and in the end may  make most available commercial property along Route 16 and Route 25  too costly to develop or render those lands not build-able,” said McConkey.

The towns’ proposed ordinances are based on a model from the state.  The ordinances only impact business activity in areas of town above the aquifer. Residences are exempt.

McConkey said it seems the ordinance writers exempted homeowners as a way to gain political support.

“Just as the underlying aquifer knows no political subdivision boundaries it also cares not who is the polluter,” said McConkey. “Private residents are exempt from all of the new regulations enforcement of the regulations and all fines associated with that enforcement.”

The model ordinance would prohibit the following land uses above the aquifer: hazardous waste disposal facility, solid waste landfill, outdoor storage of road salt and de-icing materials, junkyards, snow dumps, waste water and septage lagoon, petroleum bulk plant or terminal, gas stations.

“It’s all common sense,” said Schroeder.

Tamworth Conservation Commission Chair Ned Beecher said, for example, his town’s ordinance would require a business located above the aquifer to have a permit for storing 100 gallons of solvent. In order to obtain a permit, a business would need to create a spill prevention,control and counter measure plan.  The goal is to minimize the risk of contamination.

“Part of living together in communities means that individual freedoms are restricted some. For example, it is not someone’s right to store chlordane outside, in an unlabeled rusting drum, over the aquifer,” said Beecher. ” That’s a real threat to public health and safety.  The proposed ordinance just provides local encouragement for business owners to use common sense and do the right thing when dealing with regulated substances.”

But McConkey said Tamworth had a provision that says the planning board will have the power to create  rules as necessary to administer and enforce the ordinance. McConkey hasn’t seen the same language in any other ordinance — perhaps because Tamworth is the only town without zoning. Tamworth’s ordinance also reserves the right to have rules more stringent than the state.

“It seems like they are giving themselves a lot of power,” said McConkey.

The state already has similar laws on the books. However, Department of Environmental Services doesn’t have enough staff to enforce them, according to written information from Tamworth Conservation Commission.

A similar effort to protect another large aquifer passed in the Belmont, Tilton and Northfield area. Those towns haven’t incurred any extra cost, said Schroeder.

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