Drinking water concerns prompt Harpswell to seek additional road salt tracking

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HARPSWELL — Over the past eight winters, road-clearing crews have dropped an average of 11,200 tons of salt on Harpswell roads. That’s about 1,400 tons each year.

That’s a lot of salt.

Town officials worry it might be too much for Harpswell, especially since most residents rely almost exclusively on groundwater wells for drinking water. The issue is compounded by the fact that some of Harpswell’s groundwater receives a sodium spike from the ocean. 

The problem prompted the town to conduct a study measuring the impacts of road salt. The study advised the town to modify its winter road maintenance to reduce salt use, a recommendation that could be more costly and require Harpswell’s next winter maintenance contractor to report how much salt is used, and how often.

The requirements are not definite, but they are included in the town’s recent request for proposals to hire a winter maintenance contractor. The RFP process was unanimously authorized by the Board of Selectmen during its July 30 meeting. 

Harpswell uses private firms to clear its roads in the winter. In recent years, it has split the duties between Harry C. Crooker & Sons and Webber & Sons, two local contractors.

The latest RFP calls for one contractor to handle the entire town for the next three years.

According to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, the road salt reporting provisions were spurred by the recent study, which included water quality tests compiled between 2001 and 2008. Of the 211 samples taken, the study said, about 71 percent had sodium levels that exceeded the Maine Maximum Exposure Guideline.

Although not all of those samples could be conclusively tied exclusively to road salt, the study said four areas were likely to have been impacted by its use. Those areas included southern portions of Harpswell Neck Road and Cundys Harbor Road.

The study also recommended reducing excessive salting “wherever possible.”

Eiane said Monday that the new RFP would create an incentive for the contractor to use less salt and more sand on certain areas, a procedure that may lead to less clear roads.

“It’s a tough issue,” Eiane said. “We’re trying to balance public safety with the environmental concerns.”

The board appeared to support the new contractor requirements. However, some members wanted the option to remove some of them in event the provisions significantly increased the bids.

Currently the town allocates about $200,000 annually to winter road maintenance. 

According to the study, one reason the price could increase is because the town purchases cheaper and tax-free salt through a contract with the Maine Municipal Association. Because the road-clearing contractors are paid in a lump sum and the salt is supplied by the town, the study said it was in the contractor’s “financial interest” to minimize their cost of servicing the contract, “likely by applying excessive road salt before or at the start” of a snow storm. 

The new contract could be structured so that the contractor is compensated for each sand and salt application.

Eiane said the town wouldn’t necessarily accept the lowest bid. Contractor proposals are due Aug. 20. The board is expected to vote on a new contract in September.

In other business, the board unanimously set the town’s mil rate at $6.19 per $1,000 of assessed value. The rate is the same as the current year. 

The board also discussed taking a position on the municipal excise tax referendum, which town officials say could result in a $350,000 reduction in revenues.

Selectwoman Elinor Multer wanted to take a position against the measure, arguing that such a revenue reduction would be “disastrous”. However, that position will be considered at a later date. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net