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Well done?

$4.8 mil state grant for Tupper Lake microfiltration plant as village eyes move away from wells

TUPPER LAKE — With a new $4.8 million grant from the state, the village of Tupper Lake is ready to leave well enough alone and go back to sourcing its tap water from the Big Tupper Lake once again.

“We’re going back to the lake,” Village Mayor Paul Maroun said. “This would be the answer.”

The village has been dealing with an expensive and unsuccessful headache of water sourcing for over a decade now. Village Trustee Ron LaScala put out what he described as a “call for help” to the state in May. Early in November, that help came in the form of a $4.8 million grant from the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation.

The grant is for upgrading the village’s currently defunct water filtration plant on Maddox Lane, on the shore of Big Tupper Lake off state Route 3, into a higher-tech microfiltration plant in the hopes of finally putting to rest its effort to source acceptable drinking water in Tupper Lake.

The village got its water from the lake for decades, up until 2018, when it changed to well water under the suggestion of the state. The lake water had been producing levels of harmful byproducts before, but Maroun hopes a microfiltration filter will be successful in catching the residual chemicals before they make it to the water supply.

The wells have not been working as the village and state had hoped. They do not produce enough water and have had issues with iron discoloration.

LaScala has been pushing for the switch back to lake water sourcing for a long time.

Costs of construction

The project of upgrading the water filtration plant to produce water that will meet all the requirements is estimated to cost around $9 million in total, Maroun said. This grant covers around half the cost, and Maroun said his job is now to find the rest of the $4.2 million.

“So, if you know anyone with a big pocketbook, give me a call,” he said.

He said he’ll be talking to representatives in Albany and Washington D.C. and is optimistic there will be money available to fund the rest without the village needing to take out loans. Maroun sees lots of money coming from the federal governmet for water and infrastructure projects, and the Clean Water, Clean Air, Green Jobs Bond Act New York voters approved on Nov. 8 includes large chunks of money for water infrastructure.

“I think it’s possible,” Maroun said. “I’m not guaranteeing it, but I think it’s possible.”

He’s been discussing this upgrade with the state departments of health and environmental conservation.

Contracts approved

On Nov. 16, the village board approved a contract with the engineering company WesTech to bring in a mobile ultrafiltration pilot system to test if the higher-quality filtration will work properly on the lake. This will be paid for through the water department, which will be reimbursed by the grant money.

Maroun said he hopes in January or February the portable unit will be trucked up, hooked up and run for around three weeks to make sure it can do what it promises to do.

If it does, he hopes construction on retrofitting the water filtration plant on Maddox Lane could begin after that.

Last week, the village also authorized an agreement with the Development Authority of the North Country for the design and bidding phase of the project, and a contact with the firm C2AE for engineering services.

Maroun said once construction begins, he believes completion could come in around a year, but wasn’t certain on that timeline.

Maroun said the village would shut off water supply from its wells, but keep them open and ready as reserve water supplies in the case of an emergency.

All this water, and not a drop to drink

In a town practically surrounded by lakes, ponds and rivers, finding acceptable drinking water has been a much harder, much longer and much more expensive endeavor than one would think.

“I know it sounds stupid and I know a lot of people are upset over it, but we did this to satisfy DEC and (DOH),” Maroun said.

Several years ago, the state determined the water the village was drawing from Big Tupper Lake and Little Simond Pond was unsafe because organic material in the water, when mixed with the chlorine used to treat the water, produced byproducts linked to harmful side effects after prolonged exposure.

When natural material — leaves, algae, fungus or animal waste or corpses — mix with chlorine, they produce trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids which have been linked to an increased risk for cancer after prolonged exposure.

At the time, the village could only get grants for well water projects. The state was trying to move away from ground water sourcing, like the village had in the past from the lake.

Facing a multi-million dollar project to upgrade the filtration plant without state help, or $3 million of “free money” from the state to dig wells, the village took the latter.

But there was one problem. As LaScala said in May, “Tupper Lake is surrounded by iron.”

The wells at Pitchfork Pond were dug within just a few miles of Iron Mountain.

“The science of groundwater filtration works everywhere else, but it really doesn’t here,” LaScala said.

The state Department of Health ordered the village to improve its water quality. Maroun said the village has worked with some of the best water engineers in the North Country to no avail.

There are iron-extracting systems, but these are expensive and village Water and Sewer Department Superintendent Mark Robillard is not sure if the wells could ever produce enough water for the whole town. There has been discussion in the past of digging more wells, but this is a long, expensive process, and there’s no guarantee more wells would be free of iron.

Engineers have told the village that as climate change causes periods of drought, that can leach more iron into the water, and Maroun said the iron levels in the water have been increasing in the past two years.

The water from the wells is safe to drink — there’s no toxins or chemicals in it. The soil, rocks and sand act as a natural filter. But iron is picked up by the water as it flows beneath the ground. This iron discolors the water, turning it a coffee-colored brown, staining toilets and sinks, and potentially damaging hot water heaters.

But the wells do not produce enough water for the whole town, so the water supply has been supplemented by water drawn from a pond, which still produces the byproducts the village was initially called out for. The village has still been sending out quarterly water notices letting users know their water has the byproducts.

Maroun feels the water has always been safe to drink, but said he wants the best water possible for residents.

“I mean, I’m 70 and I’ve been drinking that water since I was 0,” Maroun said. “I think it’s good water.”

The initial $7 million well project had ballooned into an $11 million project.

To pay for its portion of the well project, as well as other water projects around town, the village has accrued $7.3 million in debt. In May, to pay off this debt, the village approved a $10.80 increase per month for water rates in the town and village, a 50% rise in costs for village ratepayers and a 38% rise for town ratepayers.

About the grant

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the grant earlier this month, part of a nearly $300 million grant package through the Water Infrastructure Improvement Grant, Intermunicipal Grant, Green Innovation Grant, and Engineering Planning Grant programs.

The goal of these grants are to “modernize the state’s aging water and sewer systems by providing the financial resources that municipalities need to undertake critical once-in-a-generation projects.”

“These grants will support water infrastructure projects totaling more than $1 billion that safeguard drinking water from the risk of toxic chemicals, increase community resilience to flooding, regionalize water systems, support local economies, and are critical to protecting public health and the environment,” a news release from Hochul’s office reads. “The grants are projected to save local taxpayers an estimated $1 billion.”

“Grants are crucial to helping communities undertake environmental infrastructure projects,” Hochul said in a statement.

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