Energy & Environment

Union slams state over lack of notification of tainted water at psychiatric facility

The Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence on June 25, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Testing at the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence has revealed the water there contains higher than allowable gross alpha radiation and uranium, both of which can have adverse effects on a person’s health. 

The Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing the employees who work there, says the results raise questions about who knew what when within the state government overseeing the facility. 

Particularly, VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said that testing when the facility opened many years ago revealed higher levels of uranium in the water than the state standard and it appears notification to employees had only recently occurred.

Howard said the Middlesex facility opened in 2013 and spans the administrations of Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, and his predecessor Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. 

The notification about the contaminants in the drinking water, he said, came this spring when Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the state’s only secure juvenile detention, moved into the facility.

“For neither administration to communicate that in any effective way to our members until Woodside moves in this year seems pretty irresponsible and dangerous,” he said. “Employees were never told to not drink the water.” 

Howard added, “If the tests were elevated before it was made apparent to the employees at Woodside, then our employees who worked there for the Department of Mental Health really were treated very poorly by two administrations.” 

The Middlesex secure residential mental health facility has seven beds inside two mobile homes that were erected as a “temporary” solution after Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding closed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury 2011.

Jennifer M.V. Fitch, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Buildings and General Services, said answering the questions raised by the union is not an easy task since it involves going back many years. 

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“Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question,” Fitch said, adding that she joined the department in 2017, and no one involved with the construction of the Middlesex site back in 2012 is still with the department.  

“It’s not clear if and when communication happened, and if it did happen, what was that communication,” Fitch said. “I just don’t have that information.”

A letter did go out last month from Sarah Squirrell, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, and Chris Cole, commissioner of the state Department of Buildings and General Services, informing staff at the central Vermont facility of recent water test results.

“We understand how concerning it may be for you to learn about the drinking water,” the letter stated. “We can assure you that DMH and BGS have taken immediate steps to address these issues.”

According to the letter, the Vermont allowable limit for gross alpha radiation in drinking water is 15 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. 

Jennifer Fitch, deputy commissioner of the Deparment of Buildings and General Services. Supplied photo

“The MTCR well results from June 3, 2020 show that the adjusted gross alpha radiation level in the water was 20 pCi/L at the time of testing,” the letter stated. 

Elevated levels, according to the letter, is “often” due to uranium and radium. “Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element formed when other radioactive elements, such as uranium, decay,” the letter stated. 

The Department of Environmental Conservation, according to the letter, revised certain water rules that became effective April 12, 2019, adding adjusted gross alpha radiation to the list of required contaminants to be tested for.

“Before the 2019 rule change, there was no testing requirement for gross alpha radiation for potable water supplies,” the letter stated, “which is why the MTCR drinking water was not tested for adjusted gross alpha radiation.”

As for uranium, according to the letter, the allowable state limit for uranium in drinking water is 0.02 milligrams per liter, or mg/L, though the federal limit is 0.03 mg/L. When the Middlesex facility opened in 2013, the uranium level measured higher than that state standard, at 0.029 mg/L.

“Over the years,” the letter stated, “uranium levels have ranged from 0.019 mg/L to 0.029 mg/L. However, the most recent tests show the uranium levels below the State’s limit. They were 0.0198 mg/L on April 23, 2020 and 0.0188 mg/L on May 5, 2020.”

The letter stated that bottled water was “always available” to the staff and residents at the facility, however, signs indicating “no drinking or cooking” were not posted on the fixtures used for drinking or cooking. 

“While the main cooking took place off site, MTCR staff and residents did cook small meals and snacks at the facility,” the letter stated. “This means some staff or residents may have been exposed to gross alpha radiation and uranium.”

The letter also addresses the potential health risk associated with the elements detected in the water.

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“Over a long period of time and at elevated levels, gross alpha radiation can increase a person’s risk of cancer and uranium increases the risk of kidney damage,” the letter stated. 

“There are no immediate health risks or symptoms from drinking water that contains gross alpha radiation,” the letter added. “The likelihood of having adverse health effects are dependent on several factors including the amount consumed, the duration of exposure, and frequency of Exposure.”

Fitch, the deputy commissioner of the Building and General Services, said the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence was constructed in 2012.

Steve Howard
VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The Middlesex facility was meant to temporarily replace forensic beds at the psychiatric hospital in Waterbury that was damaged when Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 wiped out the Waterbury State Office Complex.

The plan developed by state officials at the time, Fitch said, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation to address the uranium level in the water, was to use bottled water for drinking at the facility and for cooking to take place offsite. 

Also, she said, the DEC recommended that signs be posted about not drinking or cooking with the water from taps. 

The letter sent last month to the staff who worked at the facility stated that there were no such signs in place. Asked if such signs were ever posted at the site, Fitch replied, “It’s also not clear to us if those signs were posted or not.”

In March and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the residents of buildings at the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence were moved to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin due, in part, to changes in staffing. 

Then, in early April a new entity moved into the buildings at the site, the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the state’s secure juvenile detention facility. 

Woodside had been on the move from its past home in Essex also due to Covid-19 when the juvenile detention facility was tapped to be used for a site to care for adults in need in psychiatric care who had also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Before Woodside moved in, Fitch said, water testing revealed the elevated results for uranium and gross alpha radiation.  

Woodside moved back to its home in Essex in May as a result of the Middlesex site not proving as secure as was needed, Fitch said. 

“It had nothing to do with the water,” she said. 

The Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence on June 25, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In fact, she said, water tests in both April and May revealed results were below the state allowable limit for uranium. Asked if signs were posted at the Middlesex site when Woodside had been using the facility, Fitch replied, “It’s my understanding that signs were posted immediately and those signs were posted during the entire time they were in the facility.”

In addition to sending the letter out in mid-June about the water issue, Squirrell, the DMH commissioner, said the state is trying to notify past staff as well as former residents of the facility.

She said there are about 60 former residents of the facility.

Fitch said the planned fix involves installing a water filtration system at a cost of $8,000. Once that is in place, she said, and testing confirms that it is working to reduce the level of contaminants in the water the plan is for the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence to reopen.  

Meanwhile, Howard said, employees who worked in the building are still left with questions. 

“I think,” he said, “there are some members who are going to get their health checked out to see if there’s potential that elevated uranium may have caused any health issues they may be experiencing.”

Howard added, “I think that’s their biggest concern.” 

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