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High nitrate levels at a Martin Co. school reduce due to ECU study

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WILLIAMSTON, N.C. - After a high nitrate level was found in groundwater at one Martin County School, it got the attention of the state.

The school district had to find a way to get the water at Rodgers Elementary School back down to state regulation.

According to maintenance employees, the school runs on a septic system and they test the water three times per year. Even though the ground water isn't used for drinking, it still has to meet state drinking water standards.

“It wasn't a big issue. We had been out of compliance but no one in the area uses this water as drinking water. And the local health officials when we mentioned it to them said it really wasn't a large issue. Then I got a first letter of non-compliance from the state,” said Martin Co. School maintenance employee Brian Thomas.

When the school got the non-compliance letter from the state, they turned to East Carolina University.

"We've never had to deal with and nobody in the area has had to deal with this situation," said Thomas.

Researchers at ECU took it as an opportunity to create the first permeable barrier of its kind in the state to reduce those levels.

For the past few years, the ground water here was testing more than 20 milligrams of nitrate per liter, which is twice the state standard of 10 milligrams per liter.

"There's a standard for nitrate in drinking water because if it gets over 10 milligrams per liter of nitrate-nitrogen, if infants drink that water which could lead to blue baby syndrome, which they could suffocate," said Dr. Charles Humphrey.

Dr. Humphrey is an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at ECU. He's spent most of the year monitoring nitrate levels at Rodgers Elementary School.

"[Nitrate] can feed into adjacent streams. So if you have a lot of nitrate in streams it can lead to algae blooms and fish kills."

In May, a 20-foot-trench was dug to create a permeable barrier. The trench was filled with more than 20 tons of wood chips, donated to the project by Weyerhaeuser. The chips serve as a filter. When the water flows through the chips, the nitrate in the water converts to gas. The chips are expected to hold in place for 80 to 90 years.

"So far it seems to be showing good progress,” said Thomas. “It seems to be working."

With help from other ECU faculty members, graduate students, Martin County Schools and a $3,500 grant from the NC DHHS, the nitrate levels are consistently falling.

"We really need to keep monitoring it and keep watching the nitrate concentrations to see if what we're seeing holds up. And hopefully it will,” said Dr. Humphrey.

Using a field meter on Sept. 3, levels at the monitoring wells showed about 8 milligrams per liter, which is less than what the state requires. Those water samples were sent to a lab for additional testing. The tests came back on Sept. 11 and showed an average of 12.4 milligrams per liter.

Thomas says they are heading in the right direction. He sent the data to the state to show progress. Thomas hopes by the end of the year, the water will test below 10 milligrams per liter of nitrate.

Researchers will continue testing the water for another year before ending the study.

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