BETHEL – The Bethel Water District has awarded the contract to repair its broken water system to a town selectman without first putting the project out to bid to determine the best estimate for the extensive work.

District officials cite emergency measures that were needed to supply customers with water, and a last-minute land deal for reasons not to have contractors bid on the project, which is relying on $400,000 in federal money.

Additionally, the district is investigating a Bethel resident’s claim that the well site on which it intends to place three wells may have been contaminated years ago by fuel leaking from a gasoline tank.

The district has been struggling to overcome problems caused last July when a catastrophic rainstorm destroyed the town’s water source and Chapman Brook Watershed.

Responding to recent complaints by disgruntled contractors about the district’s awarding of the project to Jack Cross Excavation, district treasurer Michael Broderick said Friday that the move was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after officials explained the situation.

“We had originally hoped to take our groundwater source project out to bid,” Broderick said. “Under normal circumstances, we would get bid packages out, but it is an emergency situation. We actually didn’t complete the land transaction until Nov. 6, so we didn’t know when we’d start digging.”

He said that FEMA prefers to see a bid process. Cross, a Bethel selectman who has done work for the district in the past, was chosen because of his “good working relationship” and “what seemed to be very competitive prices,” Broderick said.

“His people are very productive and very responsible and their work with the water district has been quite well,” he added.

Broderick said Tuesday that had the district gone through the 30-day bid process after buying the land on Nov. 6, they’d be a mile behind in the project, which requires the placement of 2 miles of water main along North Road from the new well site.

Last Thursday, another problem surfaced when resident Frank Gibson wrote a letter to the editor of the Bethel Citizen arguing that the district was drilling for an aquifer in a gravel pit that once contained soil contaminated with methyl tertiary-butyl ether, more commonly known as MTBE.

The chemical compound has been used since 1979 to replace lead as an octane enhancer to prevent engine knocking. It has also been detected in groundwater throughout the country.

However, after learning last week about the problem that Gibson revealed, Broderick said the district tested the water at the new site and learned there is no MTBE present. The compound can leach into the ground and contaminate aquifers.

“There is nothing to indicate there are hydrocarbon compounds in the ground. (Gibson’s comments) are news to us, but they are very serious concerns and we are following up on it with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. There was no trace of any gasoline or MTBE compound,” Broderick said.

Gibson said that in the early 1990s, soil believed contaminated with MTBE was taken from the Ripley and Fletcher Co. site on Main and Vernon streets and placed into the gravel pit in which the new wells are being drilled.

“We haven’t confirmed that happened, but we’re trying to track it down. We’re not highly alarmed, but it’s a public water supply and we are taking it seriously,” Broderick added.

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