- Farm runoff isn’t just polluting Vermont lakes and streams — nitrate from manure and fertilizer is also contaminating private drinking wells.
- And although the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets has regulatory authority, its response is inconsistent, and often undocumented.
The rash started on the underside of Jim Lovinsky’s wrists. Then it spread to the bottom of his feet.
“It looked like a raised circle, with the lower spot in the middle. Kind of like a donut, but very small,” he said. The bumps were red and itchy. Jim’s doctor sent him to a dermatologist, who asked if Jim works with chemicals or develops film. He didn’t. His wife, he told the doctor, had also been getting bouts of hives.
“You need to get your water checked,” she said.
The Lovinskys had moved from Massachusetts to their 70-acre homestead in East Hardwick in 1989, about a decade earlier. Their water comes from a 7-foot-deep, spring-fed well on a hill between their house and some marshland. It had never been a problem.
Because the family lived adjacent to a dairy farm, the Agency of Agriculture tested the well for free as part of that agency’s groundwater monitoring program. It was October 2000 when the agency’s soil scientist, Jeff Comstock, came up to do the tests.
“The next thing I know,” Lovinsky recalled recently, “he was calling me at work telling me not to drink our water.”
The drinking water had low levels of the the herbicide Metolachlor, which is known to cause rashes. Immediately after switching to bottled water, Jim’s rash disappeared. But the Metolachlor is not what worried Comstock. The well had also tested 76 percent over (almost double) the safety standard for nitrate, a naturally occurring compound found in high concentrations in human and animal waste.
At low levels in drinking water, nitrate is common and harmless. At or above the federal and state safety standard of 10 parts per million (ppm), consuming nitrate can be fatal for babies who drink formula. High levels of nitrate may also increase the risk of pregnancy complications. The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorizes the compound as a “probable carcinogen.”
This month, the couple received the results of their 34th groundwater sample. It came back 19.9ppm, nearly twice the safety standard, and slightly higher than their first test in 2000. After 17 years, little had changed.
“If we were having a water issue caused by PFOA, or because we had a gas station next door that had a gas leak, obviously something happens really fast,” Jim says. “But because it’s an agricultural thing, it seems like it’s just not even being addressed.”
In fact, at least 63 private drinking water wells have tested over the safety standard for nitrate on or near Vermont farms in the last 10 years, according to the Agency of Agriculture’s groundwater monitoring database. These wells are distributed across 29 Vermont towns, from Derby to Westminster, Pawlet to Sheldon. Some of the wells feed barns and milkhouses. Many feed farmers, their tenants and their neighbors. They range in depth from shallow, dug wells to drilled wells as deep as 670 feet.