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Monitoring well in Hedgehog Park disconcerting for Salem council

SALEM - As contractors from the state Department of Environmental Services prepare to install a monitoring well inside Hedgehog Park, town officials expressed concerns about safety and the town's potential liability.

During a lengthy public hearing held at Monday night's Board of Selectmen meeting, the board debated the project with Chris Dillon, the town's recreation director, and consultants from Weston Solutions Inc., the company hired by the DES to monitor area wells for possible contamination.

Weston Solutions consultants Betty Nowak and Andrew Klappholz said the DES has approached them to study the park's surrounding areas following the discovery of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) in the former Turner Well.

In December, the town dissolved its decade-long agreement with the well's property owners. The well previously served as an emergency water reserve for the town but was never actually put into use. Found in groundwater throughout the county, MTBE can give drinking water an offensive odor and taste, and many scientists believe it's also a potential carcinogen in higher doses.

The substance can leak into water sources through the improper storage of gasoline and also through storm water runoff and consumer disposal.

Nowak said funding for the local study was provided by the state's Ether Fund and would require no contribution from the town.

Initial studies done in the area have revealed low levels of contamination at bedrock level in the area, and Nowak said it's believed the source of the MTBE is atop the bedrock.

Right now, the plan is to monitor 11 wells in the surrounding area, including the single well that would be located on town property.

Other property owners have already given the DES permission to monitor their wells, Klappholz said.

"We're trying to get a better understanding as to how all of the local water supply wells being used are impacting the ground water," Nowak said.

With improvements to the popular Salem recreation spot pending, Selectman Pat Hargreaves expressed some concern.

"Is this going to interfere?" he asked. "Because I love that park and don't want to drive by and say 'What did they do to our park?'"

According to Dillon, it won't interfere, since the plan is to place the testing well along the roadside of Route 28, where it won't affect park-goers' activities. The well itself would have a two-inch-diameter PVC pipe as its sole opening, leading into a 35-foot well.

Klappholz said the well opening would be at ground level, so as not to become an eyesore.

"The most we'd disturb is the grass, but we could mitigate that with the use of plywood if need be," he said.

Selectman Stephen Campbell said he wanted to make sure the town couldn't be held liable in the unlikely event of someone getting injured by the well.

"They're asking for our permission, but I'm going to be holding the bag. So this is a concern," he said. "Without running this by our town legal counsel, I don't think we should sign this agreement. Obviously we wouldn't hold Weston responsible if someone gets hurt at the beach, but I still think we should run it by counsel."

The selectmen also agreed that the waters of Hedgehog Pond should be tested for possible contaminants as part of the deal.

The board unanimously agreed to grant permission for the well on those two conditions, stressing that the well should also be filled in by the state when the testing has concluded.

Once the town's attorneys approve the agreement, Nowak said the plan is to begin monitoring groundwater levels sometime this month. She said an existing well could be used for the initial steps to avoid further delays.

The entire process should be completed at end of summer and the consultants' findings will be reported to the DES, she said.

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