RICHMOND — Nine households lost their water Tuesday when the Richmond Utilities District shut the tap to prevent possible contamination of the town’s drinking water.
Sewage is overflowing from a private pumping station at Meadowbrook Trailer Park, and there are leaks in the water pipes. Richmond Utilities District Superintendent Frank Talbot said those problems could threaten the water supply for the district’s other 580 customers.
The Public Utilities Commission “said I had an inherent responsibility to the rest of the customers in the district to make sure there was no chance of this sewerage being sucked back into the drinking water system,” Talbot said.
Meanwhile, sewage is flowing downhill from the trailer park into Mill Brook. The brook, which empties into the Kennebec River, contains high levels of E. coli from the waste, according to testing by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Talbot said he notified the park’s tenants and owner, Russell Edwards Jr., on April 4 that the water would be shut off in 14 days unless equipment was repaired and tested. After nothing happened, Talbot shut off the water about 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Talbot said the Public Utilities Commission told him that in case of an emergency, he can turn off the water right away, but he wanted to be fair to Edwards and the tenants at the mobile home park.
“We don’t want to shut the water off any more than they want it shut off,” he said.
Nine of the park’s mobile homes are occupied, and all of the residents have nothing coming from their taps to drink or use for cooking or bathing. At least one family there has young children.
Norma Duperre, 49, said her daughter drove up from Massachusetts with her 11-month-old child during the weekend for a surprise visit, but she would have to cut the visit short because of the water being shut off.
“I can’t even buy a gallon of water, because I don’t have any income to do that,” Duperre said.
Duperre said she has no friends or relatives in the area who could put her up or even let her take a shower.
Like most of the other units in the park, Duperre’s mobile home is run-down, in her case badly enough that it failed a Section 8 inspection. A sheet of plastic is stretched across the inside of a window with a cracked pane. Duperre said the window and the railing on her porch have been broken since she moved in eight years ago, and her home isn’t on a concrete slab or anchored to the ground.
Duperre said she’s had a series of E. coli infections during the past year, and she wonders whether it’s related to the sewage problems at the park. Until now, with the urgency of the water shutoff, she’s kept her head down.
“I don’t complain as bad,” she said. “I don’t want to be homeless, so I just keep my mouth shut.”
Some of the other mobile homes in the park have boards covering broken windows. Vacant mobile homes are filled with debris from unfinished renovations and gradual deterioration. On Tuesday, the dirt road was muddy and pocked with water-filled potholes.
OWNER VS. MANAGER
Edwards, who has owned the park since the early 1990s, said Tuesday he can’t afford to fix the sewage pump, the pipes or any of the other problems.
He alleges that the park’s manager, John Wilson, has not given him the tenants’ rent payments. Edwards said he has contacted police about the missing money but has received no response.
Edwards, 80, said he and his wife live on Social Security and are trying to keep their own home on Peaks Island from going into foreclosure.
Most of the current tenants have moved in since Wilson became manager last spring, Edwards said. He said Wilson has been badmouthing him, promising improvements to the tenants and then blaming him when nothing happens.
Edwards estimated that $38,000 of his is missing.
“I’m the victim here, not the culprit,” Edwards said. “That’s John’s game: âRuss is no good. Russ is a culprit.'”
Duperre said Edwards has made similar accusations against managers and maintenance men for years. He allows them to live in a trailer rent-free and pays them for their work beyond the value of the rent, but eventually the pay stops and they quit out of frustration.
Edwards denied having had problems with previous managers.
“(Wilson) has told these tenants these lies,” he said. “I’ve never had anybody steal money from me.”
Wilson denied Edwards’ theft accusation. He said he and his partner, Leo Huff, who used to do maintenance work in the park, still live there and would like to buy the property and fix it up.
Wilson said he has organized the current and former tenants into a group that wants to file a lawsuit against Edwards, collectively seeking to stop evictions, recover damages and place an attachment on Edwards’ home to improve the park and pay off associated debts.
But they can’t afford a lawyer.
Wilson said his first priority, however, is to get the water turned back on. He was not successful in securing an order to do so Tuesday from Sagadahoc County Superior Court. Later Tuesday, Wilson said he was working with the Office of the Attorney General and the Richmond Utilities District to try to address the problem.
Although he says his current troubles are a result of the theft that he claims Wilson committed, Edwards does have a history of not paying his bills, or at least his water bill.
Talbot said the utilities district has multiple liens against the property because Edwards is past due on his water bill by nearly $20,000. Talbot has been on the job for only a month, but district trustees have told him that Edwards has been past due by five figures for years.
Wilson and the other tenants have made an agreement with the utilities district that they will pay the water bill going forward to keep the water from being disconnection for nonpayment.
The town of Richmond also has placed liens against the property several times. According to the Sagadahoc County Registry of Deeds, 16 municipal liens were placed on Edwards’ Richmond property in August.
Phil Garwood, a specialist with the Department of Environmental Protection, went to the mobile home park March 27 after being notified by Richmond Code Enforcement Officer James Valley of the potential contamination of Mill Brook.
Garwood said Tuesday they used a dye test to determine that outflow from the sewage pumping station was reaching the brook and then tested the concentration of E. coli bacteria in three spots: at point of discharge by the bank, farther into the brook and at a spot in Mill Brook near Route 24.
Near Route 24, the result was 31 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters. Garwood said anything below 100 indicates fairly clean water, with some traces of the bacteria from animals or other dispersed sources.
Just downstream from the discharge point, the sample registered at the top of the scale for the test, at a concentration of 2,419. At the discharge point, the concentration of E. coli was above the limits of the test.
“It indicates that human sewage is getting into the water, and that any contact of the water by people would be a potential health risk,” Garwood said.
He said he sent a notice of violation to Edwards on April 14, instructing him to cease the discharge immediately. Edwards has 10 days to make a response and will have to correct the problem or face penalties, Garwood said.