Years of high nitrate levels in Maeystown’s drinking water have pushed the village to abandon treating its own water supply and start buying water from a new source.
Federal environmental regulations restrict nitrate levels to 10 milligrams per liter. Maeystown’s water was tested 48 times from 2011-15, and the average over the five-year period was 10.2 mg/l.
Nitrate salts are found naturally in the earth as large deposits and are often found in man-made fertilizers. If left untreated, high amounts of nitrates can decrease oxygen in the blood, which is particularly harmful to infants.
Maeystown is one of the first examples of what the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency describes as a growing problem for the state.
“Four years ago, it got to the point where it became a worrisome problem,” Mayor Terry Walster said after years of inclining results. “We knew we had to do something.”
Unlike water tests for lead, which are taken at the home to check for on-site contamination from old pipes, nitrates are tested for at the treatment plant, according to IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs.
Four years ago, it got to the point where it became a worrisome problem. We knew we had to do something.
Maeystown Mayor Terry Walster
Most yearly tests throughout the metro-east have logged far below 10 mg/l. After Maeystown, the next highest averages over the five-year period included:
▪ St. Rose, with 31 tests averaging 7.3 mg/l.
▪ Germantown, with 21 tests averaging 5.5 mg/l.
▪ Granite City, with six tests averaging 3.8 mg/l.
John Wagner, of the Monroe County Health Department, said he hasn’t heard of any local health issues stemming from Maeystown’s nitrate problem.
Four years ago, households with pregnant women or children under the age of six months started receiving a supply of bottled water from the village for free. There have been maybe half a dozen families signed up in the past, according to Walster. Now, only one family receives the benefit.
The program will end when the Fountain Water District starts supplying the town’s water.
Disposing wastewater also a problem
Another problem the town faced was how to treat and where to discharge all that water after it was used.
Wastewater from most towns on the Mississippi River empty into the Delta where it contributes to a large aquatic “kill zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer run-off builds up from hundreds of towns there, but some, like Maeystown, have such high levels that they need to find a way to cut back at home.
“It’s a problem that we’re becoming more aware of,” said Bob Mosher, a wastewater expert at the IEPA.
Mosher said the solution is breaking down nitrogen more at treatment plants. One way to do that is by aerating the nitrogen in wastewater, which some more advanced facilities do, but not all.
Hiring Hennigan and Associates, a civil engineering firm with four offices in the metro-east, Maeystown spent months determining the best course it could afford to find alternative ways to discharge its wastewater.
One solution included collecting it so the town could spread it as fertilizer, but because it couldn’t be spread in the winter, the town would have had to buy a storage tank that would have cost upwards of $1 million.
A different idea included using a technology to filter the water through a wood chip bio-reactor, but that idea was also too expensive.
Instead, Maeystown has decided to connect to the Fountain Water District, which serves the western part of Monroe County. The district’s nitrate level tested at 0.05 mg/l in 2015.
Maeystown signed a 20-year water supply contract with the district on June 6, though the town is still about three to six months out from getting its water, said Wendy Hill, the office manager for the Fountain Water District.
Hill said the district received the construction permit Wednesday, but the plans still have yet to come through.
“We’re a few months out yet, at best,” Hill said. But the good news is that Fountain’s water main is nearby, she added, so construction should not be too difficult.
Agriculture not believed to be the culprit
Although Maeystown is one of the first towns in Illinois to confront this problem, the East Coast has been dealing with it for a while now, said Jack Taylor, an engineer with Hennigan and Associates.
“Their problems began several years ago, whereas our problems are just beginning,” Taylor said.
Nitrate concentration is often linked to crop fertilization. But Wally Cox, who also works at Hennigan and Associates as an engineer, said he does not trace it back to heavy agriculture in the area.
The nitrogen found in Maeystown is more naturally occurring than man-made, Cox said. In addition, his colleague Taylor said, the ground water in Maeystown comes from far away. The nitrates there wash from higher ground, including other parts of Illinois.
Maeystown’s geography makes it particularly susceptible to nitrate contamination. Few Southern Illinois towns rely on well water, Cox said. They rely on surface water, which can act as reservoirs for fertilizers, and the clay-heavy soil mixture downstate means that nutrients do not filter as well as they do farther north. Places near rivers, like Maeystown, also might have a harder time dealing with it, as the nitrates wash their way down the river.
Maeystown was unique as far as I knew of. None of them that I’ve heard of have this massive amount in the drinking water.
Bob Mosher, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
“Maeystown was unique as far as I knew of,” said Bob Mosher of the IEPA. “None of them that I’ve heard of have this massive amount in the drinking water.”
Right now, the village, population 158, has a handle on the issue, but it probably will not be the last in the state to confront creeping nitrate levels, and it might take longer to bring them down.
“Nutrient loss and runoff is a major threat to water quality in Illinois,” the Department of Agriculture wrote in a report on how to reduce nutrients in the water that contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
“State and local efforts over the decades to control nutrients have yielded positive results, but new and expanded strategies are needed to secure the future health of our water throughout Illinois and the Mississippi River Basin.”
Illinois and 11 other states on the Hypoxia Task Force had initially projected to reduce nutrient levels by 45 percent in 2015, but in that year it extended the date to 2035.
Here’s how to keep added nitrates and nitrites out of your body
- Minimize your consumption of processed foods and cured meat products such as hot dogs, sausage and cold cuts.
- Check labels carefully and avoid products that list sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites. In addition to lunch meat, some canned beans and vegetables with bacon, and even packaged seafood, may contain these added chemicals.
- Eat organic food. Synthetic nitrates and nitrites are not allowed as preservatives in organic packaged foods and meats.
- Find out if your water is tainted with nitrates or nitrites. Public drinking water utilities test for these compounds and must disclose their results. If you drink well water, your local health department can help you find out if this is a problem in your area. You can also have your water tested by a laboratory. If the chemicals are present, consider treating your water with a home water distiller, a reverse osmosis filter or an ion exchange filter to remove any fertilizer nitrates in the groundwater.
- Eat a diet high in antioxidants. Vitamin C and certain other vitamins can reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines.