NEWPORT — A year ago, Newport’s prime drawing card — Sebasticook Lake — was clogged with dead, green algae.
The lake looked like pea soup, and fish were literally drowning in the water for the lack of oxygen. Lake-siders were appalled at the apparent disintegrating quality of the water.
What a difference a year can make. Bolstered by the closing of Eastland Woolen Mill, upstream in Corinna, the lake isn’t in bloom yet this summer, and water experts are calling its sudden and dramatic recovery “nearly miraculous.”
The flip side of this good news, however, lies upstream from the lake in the riverbed of the East Branch of the Sebasticook River. Earlier this month, environmental officials discovered a highly poisonous chemical deposit, settled deep in the riverbed by the closed Eastland Mill. They have not determined yet just how this deposit has been affecting the lake, the river or nearby water supplies.
David Courtemarche has been testing Sebasticook Lake waters for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Sebasticook Lake Association for more than a decade.
“This is the clearest I’ve ever seen the lake,” he said Wednesday.
Courtemarche stopped by the public boat launch Tuesday and was shocked to see that the bottom of the lake was visible as far out as he could see. Results of tests taken in late July “were as good as tests usually taken in early spring,” he said.
“We might make it to Labor Day without a bloom,” Courtemarche predicted. “If we do, I’ll be ecstatic.”
Courtemarch credits the clear water to two major factors: a lack of rain and the closure of Eastland Woolen Mill in Corinna. Rain pushes phosphorus runoff into the lake, causing the algae bloom. Residents long have suspected the mill of providing pollution to the chemical mix that affects the lake.
In the bed of the Sebasticook River, which flows by the mill and serves as the discharge point for Corinna’s waste-water treatment plant, testing has been going on all summer. Larry Brown of DEP confirmed Wednesday that massive quantities of chlorobenzene were found buried seven feet below the riverbed.
Chlorobenzene is a flammable liquid used to dye wool, a chemical used by Eastland Mill for decades. This isn’t the first brush with the poison for area residents. In 1984, 10 Corinna wells were discovered to be contaminated with the liquid after it was found in the water at a local restaurant.
In 1994, a $750,000 municipal water project was completed that provided clean drinking water to 14 Corinna homes. Eastland, which was in full operation at the time, contributed $30,000 to the project.
The municipal water project involved establishing an adequate well and distribution system in the downtown area.
With testing completed only this week, DEP officials are not ready to speculate on how far-reaching the effects of the newly discovered deposit may be.
“We have the data back from the testing,” Brown said, “but we have not completely analyzed it. We have done sort of a curiosity review.”
The discovery of chlorobenzene didn’t surprise Brown, but its concentration did.
“This will definitely cause us to do something,” said Brown, although what that “something” will be he could not say.
Dredging the area could be an option, he said, but one with a hefty price tag. With Eastland closed and foreclosed, the cost likely would be borne by federal cleanup programs, similar to one conducted a decade ago in nearby Plymouth when household wells were found similarly contaminated from waste oil.
Brown said he could not predict whether the chlorobenzene deposit will affect the lake, nor could he identify it as a separate deposit from the one that contaminated the downtown wells. “We are still in the preliminary stages of investigating this,” he said.
In addition, Brown said testing will be completed in September at the site of a former landfill on the riverbank of the Sebasticook off Old County Road in Newport. Brown said a visit to the area “did not alarm” him, but he would like to check the site to see if anything deposited there could be affecting the lake.
Commenting on the many environmental problems that have come back to haunt Maine residents, Brown said, “We were all negligent, ignorant. We just didn’t know.”
Courtemarche said he will continue to monitor Sebasticook Lake’s water quality in hopes of tapering off the annual drawdown. Each Labor Day, for the past 15 years, the North Street Dam has been lowered and the lake dumped downstream in an attempt to keep the algae blooms from falling back to the lakebed and further contaminating the lake.
“If we can start expecting this kind of a summer on the lake, I may recommend we not draw down, or at the least only draw down 3 or 4 feet,” said Courtemarche. “Drawing down may then be creating more harm than doing good, and we need to start thinking about balancing the damage we do to the ecological system in the lake with the drawdown.”