Researchers launch another Orleans water study; looking for volunteers

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ORLEANS — Virginia Tech researchers who have been studying well water contamination in the town are preparing to launch another study, and they need volunteers.

The study will explore whether chloride levels in groundwater change over time, particularly from winter to summer, said Kelsey J. Pieper, a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The scientists hope the study will help them identify the potential cause of widespread salt contamination in the northern part of town.

“(We are looking at) how do chloride concentrations fluctuate,” Dr. Pieper said. “Do chloride and corrosion parameters change — are they different between winter and summer?”

Residents and elected officials have uniformly blamed the state Department of Transportation’s salt barn for the contamination that has plagued homeowners’ wells for decades.

In addition to the salt storage facility on Route 12 in Collins Landing, the team of scientists, who were also responsible for uncovering lead contamination in Flint, Mich., foresee busy intersections and geological sources as being other possible causes, Dr. Pieper said. The study is expected to help researchers identify how chloride moves into residents’ wells, which would help them identify possible sources.

If chloride levels in Orleans’s groundwater does not change, then the source of contamination would most likely be geological sources, Dr. Pieper said. If chloride levels fluctuate, however, the team would conduct additional research to try to pinpoint the cause.

“It’s really more about that long-term picture that consistent monitoring will give to our researchers,” said Stephanie G. Weiss, a local contact for the research team. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to get a clear picture of what we’re dealing with.”

Residents who participate will be asked to collect a water sample from their kitchen or bathroom faucet in the morning once each week for 24 weeks, or six months, from the middle of this month to the end of June.

Mrs. Weiss, who contacted Virginia Tech years ago to have researchers study the contamination in Orleans, said the team will provide the sampling kits to volunteers, who will not be charged and will remain anonymous. The scientists need five to 15 residents, but Dr. Pieper said she will work with any number of people who want to volunteer.

Anyone interested in providing samples can contact Dr. Pieper at kpieper@vt.edu or Mrs. Weiss at stephanie.gardner.weiss@gmail.com.

“The more residents we have and the more data we have, the better picture we will have with what’s going on,” Dr. Pieper said.

The groundwater quality study follows the researchers’ previous sample analysis of well water in the town and corrosion experiments. They concluded from analyzing well samples that 11 out of 90 wells contained lead and 12 of 90 contained copper. They also discovered through experiments using synthetic water that replicated water found in Orleans that increased levels of chloride increased corrosion in plumbing materials, including harmful metals like lead from certain materials.

“This is the next logical step,” Dr. Pieper said about the new study. “We really want to engage with the community because they want more answers.”

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