New Salem BOH to ask school’s abutters about testing water

  • Swift River School in New Salem. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2021 4:48:49 PM

NEW SALEM – The town’s health board is taking the lead on contacting Swift River School’s abutters to determine their willingness to have their water tested, the first step in remedying an issue regarding an excess of a family of chemicals used in common consumer products such as food packaging and outdoor clothing.

A consensus was reached at last week’s virtual Wendell Selectboard meeting — attended by the school’s principal, the school district’s superintendent, the New Salem Selectboard, and the Wendell and New Salem health boards — to try to have water tested before further scrutinizing potential filtration systems.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Swift River School to rid its water of PFAS6, a set of six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Jennifer Culkeen, superintendent of Erving School Union 28, said she has been informed that failure to fix this problem could subject the school to legal ramifications and there could be a citation for each day the school is out of compliance.

Located at 201 Wendell Road in New Salem, the Swift River School serves elementary students from that town and Wendell. It was generally agreed at Wednesday’s meeting that the towns could split the upgrade costs with $200,000 to $300,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money.

Bruce Turner, finance and operations director for Erving School Union 28, of which Swift River School is a member, said the contaminants in the water are the result of groundwater seeping into the well on school property. The well is inside the building’s boiler room. Turner said PFAS6 is a component found in carpets, soaps, detergents and anything containing a fire retardant.

New Salem Selectboard member Wayne Hachey said it is important to test water before investing time and money in another well.

“And if they come up with the same problem, if the whole area is contaminated, sinking another well [a possible remedy] is probably not the best thing to do,” he said, with Facilities Engineer Jim Slavas agreeing. 

Slavas said he believes the state still has a free well-testing program.

“OK,” Wendell Selectboard Chair Dan Keller said, “so I think there’s some homework that needs to be done. I think that’s a great idea, test the homes right around Swift River School, especially upstream, especially if we can get it done for free, which it sounds like we can.”

Turner said the state will be flexible with the school, “as long as we’re working on a solution.”

Slavas also said drilling another well would require test wells, probably in the field just beyond the playground “to get far enough away from the school.”

But Principal Kelley Sullivan chimed in to say said drilling there is not the best o because that’s where the building’s septic system and leach field are. And, she said, drilling behind the school would be difficult because contractors would have to cross a stream and enter a wooded area to do so.

“So that would be a major issue also,” she said.

Barbara Craddock, chair of the Wendell Board of Health, said she is very curious as to what is going on underneath the building.

“And where’s Dow and Dupont?” Hachey added. “They’re the ones that created this [chemical] compound back in the ’40s. Why aren’t they here explaining some of this to us?”

“Well, you know, Wayne, they also created Agent Orange,” Keller said, to which Hachey replied in the affirmative, “Dow Chemical, and they still haven’t done a very good job of owning up to that.”

Sullivan said the school’s food is being cooked with bottled water and the state provided two water fountains that filter PFAS6. However, she said, the state insists this is not a complete remedy.

The principal also said many parents and guardians send their students to school with bottled water. But Hachey mentioned that that, too, can be dangerous due to chemical components in the bottles’ plastic.

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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