SKOWHEGAN — A dam construction site has been pinpointed by officials as the cause of drinking water contamination that happened earlier this month and impacted about 6,000 residents who were ordered not to drink tap water for more than four days. 

Despite the construction site being identified as the source, officials say the exact cause of the contamination has not yet been identified as lab testing continues.

“We’re convinced that the issue was associated with the construction, and we still have additional sampling that’s going on,” said Mike Vannoy, vice president of Maine Water Co., which operates 11 water treatment facilities serving a dozen public water systems with 32,000 customers across the state. “We should know by next week. The team here in Skowhegan has been phenomenal in their response.”

On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 12, Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention issued a “do not drink” order for customers in Skowhegan. Maine Water Co. worked with Maine CDC’s Drinking Water Program alongside the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the cause of a sheen on the surface of the supply ponds as well as what caused the soapy odor and taste in the drinking water. 

The order affected about 6,000 residents townwide who were asked to use water for only non-consumption purposes, including bathing, laundry and dishwashing. Bottled water was provided for drinking, making ice cubes, food preparation, brushing teeth and other consumption purposes. By the weekend, a portable fill-up station was available for residents to bring containers to fill with clean water.

The cause of the odor and taste of the water is still unclear, but Vannoy said that Maine Water has been able to pinpoint the area to a construction site at the dam that separates the upper and lower supply ponds. 

A dam is being refurbished Wednesday at Maine Water in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Prior to the issue with the water, Maine Water Co.’s Skowhegan site was working on two projects, one to replace the old pump station on the Kennebec River and bring a new water line to the plant and the ponds, the other to replace the water flow structure between the upper and lower ponds.

Customers were notified Thursday evening via phone and social media posts. Schools in-town closed on Friday while crews worked on a plan to distribute water. Maine CDC also issued a media release on the “do not drink” order.

“Upon confirming the customer’s report at a nearby hydrant and observing a sheen on the surface of the two small ponds that supply water to the treatment plant, Maine CDC issued a Do Not Drink Order for all customers of the water system,” the release said.

The water supply from the two ponds was shut off and the source was moved to the Kennebec River at the company’s other pump station and the system was flushed and sampled throughout the weekend.

“For a water company, we are very concerned about a ‘do not drink’ order,” Vannoy said. “We set up our Emergency Orders Operation Center on Thursday evening and started making provisions for how we were going to serve customers with bottled water through this period because we still didn’t know how long it would last.”

Maine Water Skowhegan used this mobile water distribution center to meet recent water needs. On Wednesday the center was back at Maine Water Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

By that Friday afternoon, water distribution began at the Community Center on Poulin Drive, with trucks arriving with Poland Spring bottled water. Operations continued throughout the weekend and up until the order was lifted on Tuesday with the assistance of Connecticut Water Co., Maine Water’s sister company, Kingfield’s bottling plant and Hannaford. Helping with the distribution process were Skowhegan Fire Department, Skowhegan Police Department, Rec Center staff and other volunteers.

Mike Poulin, site superintendent at Maine Water’s operation in Skowhegan, said that around 150,000 bottles of water were distributed while the order was in place.

While the order has been lifted, crews are still working to see what caused the issue, and Vannoy said that it has been narrowed down to a construction site at the facility in Skowhegan, located between the two ponds.

Vannoy added that one of their initial thoughts was some kind of cross-connect between outside organizations, likely accidental, but there was no proof of this. Other factors were also considered, but ultimately, the only thing going on near the ponds was the construction, so the focus went back there.

“Throughout that weekend we did a lot of things to try to identify what the problem was,” Vannoy said. “When you have something like this happen, the first thing you do is check the water shed to see if anything was spilled or if there was malicious activity, which you need to rule out. Very thorough watershed evaluations were conducted.”

Ducks paddle past a silt curtain in the lower pond Wednesday at Maine Water in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Vannoy said that the EPA ruled out the sheen on one of the ponds as a source of the contamination, citing it as an organic matter and decay that is a naturally occurring situation in a pond and not something to worry about. Malicious activity was not suspected.

Construction on the dam structure between the upper and lower ponds wrapped up Monday, Nov. 9. Vannoy said that one of the issues with the construction was that water was still leaking by the structure from the upper pond to the lower pond. The concern was that it should be secure and that water should not be flowing through.

All of the materials used have NSF61 certification, meaning that they are safe to use with drinking water. All materials were reviewed again when the issue arose.

“Because of the sequence of events and because we weren’t satisfied with this because it was still leaking, we contacted the company to come in and pull all of the material out,” Vannoy said. “We’re going to have them fix the leaking area”

He added that engineers are working out a mechanical-type joint to seal up the site. For now, the upper pond is drained and the dam is isolated from the water supply. In the lower pond is a bypass pump from the stream that typically feeds the upper pond.

He said that they were able to locate this issue because the timeline for the construction project wrapped up on Monday, Nov. 9; water began running through the structure Wednesday and the odor was discovered Thursday.

“That’s why we’re zeroing in on this structure as the source of the problem,” Vannoy said.

From left, Mike Poulin, Mark Vannoy, Mark Robinson and Mike Cummons pass the lower pond, left, Wednesday at Maine Water in Skowhegan. The men toured a dam that is being refurbished at the facility. Poulin, Vannoy and Cummons are with Maine Water, while Robinson is a consultant for Maine Water. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

He predicts that construction on this repair will take about two to three weeks. Engineers are looking at the subsurface conditions under the dam and evaluating what the best solutions are to seal it up.

Water is still being provided from the Kennebec River, an alternative to the upper and lower ponds at the water treatment facility, from which the system typically pulls. 

Vannoy added that “do not drink” orders are not very common, at least within Maine Water Co.’s system. Looking back, he said that the last time the company issued a “do not drink” order was sometime in the 1990s. The issue that resulted in the order for the Rockport area was linked to a construction project at Mirror Lake.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: