Water: how clean, how safe, how much?

‘Boil water’ notices common for small Vermont community

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017 

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Photo by Fionnuala O’Leary, News21

Bonnie Sicard, who lives in Beebe Plains, Vermont, said her water has problems: “It’s got arsenic. It’s got a bunch of other stuff in it.”

A PROJECT OF
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News 21 investigates drinking water in America in this multimedia project reported and produced by 29 students from 18 universities. The investigation finds that as many as 63 million people — nearly a fifth of the country — were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once over the past decade. This year’s News21 team included Jordan Houston, a recent graduate of American University’s master’s program and a former intern at the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

BEEBE PLAIN, Vt. — The residents of Beebe Plain in Derby, Vermont, have gotten used to the “boil water” notices that come in the mail.

“They send us a post every once in awhile saying that we should be boiling our water,” resident Bonnie Sicard said. “This has been going on pretty much ever since I’ve lived here. And that’s 27 years.”

The picturesque community, which straddles the Canadian border, is more than two hours away from the nearest city, Burlington.

Although the local water district draws its water from Stanstead, Quebec, Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation regulates it.

But several Beebe Plain residents said they’re frustrated that officials on both sides of the border can’t seem to fix the problems, despite the fact residents still have to pay for the water.

Residents must rely on bottled water because “nobody knows half the time whether you can drink it or even take a bath in it,” Sicard said.

But, she said, nobody wants to take responsibility.

“When you’re talking to the mayor (of Stanstead, Quebec) in Canada, they tell you it’s not their problem,” she said. “Then you go to the town and you talk to them about it, and they say it’s not their problem. Whose problem is it then?”

Ben Montross, a representative from Vermont’s environmental department, said it’s a complicated relationship. The community had to switch to the Canadian water source after its local well water source became contaminated with arsenic, but they have still run into problems.

Montross said the latest boil water notice was issued to warn residents of potential bacterial contamination after a leak in Vermont’s water distribution system.

For some residents, paying an annual fee of $254 for drinking water is a major source of contention.

“It’s just scary to think about drinking water not being safe to drink,” said Paul Therrien, a father of three. “That’s your drinking water. That comes out of your faucet. You’re paying. We’re expected to pay (nearly) $300 a year for water that we can’t use.”

Therrien and his girlfriend, Alyssa Coburn, said they wanted to “settle down, be happy and have our family” in Beebe Plain. But they received an arsenic warning with their first bill.

“Kids are quite a bit of work anyway on their own nevermind having to boil water to bathe my children,” Coburn said. “For a household of five people every single day, it just kind of felt like the workload got even worse.”

The couple, who received the latest boil water notice two months ago, said they are never informed when and if the water is safe to drink again. Stacks of water bottles line their hallway along with children’s toys.

“There’s no freedom,” Therrien said. “You’re not able to go to the kitchen cupboard and grab a glass and fill it up with water and know that you’re drinking a safe substance. It’s very, very stressful.”

Montross told News21 that the boil water notices were just a “precautionary” measure after that leak in the distribution system.

But Therrien said he still worries about the health of his children, ages 3, 4 and 9. He is terrified they will accidentally drink water laced with arsenic or contaminated with bacteria.

“You can’t be in every room of the house with three kids,” he said. “You’ve got one running up the stairs. You can’t stop them from washing their hands. And the little ones, they want a drink — they don’t understand.”