Tisbury lab keeps water testing close to its source

The Tisbury Department of Public Works is in the final stages of establishing a certified water testing laboratory at the Tisbury Wastewater Facility. Town officials say it will save money and time — important when water quality is in question. DPW director Fred LaPiana said he is in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) final stage of certification.

“Having our own lab provides a way to be more efficient cost-wise and saves money, but the real issue is[ that] we get real time information,” Mr. LaPiana said. “Our lab can immediately serve our needs here.”

Time is a critical factor, especially in processing wastewater samples, which require analysis within a certain number of hours. The live organisms and bacteria they may contain have a short shelf life.

“That’s been one of our difficulties with wastewater samples, is being able to ship the stuff off and getting it to the lab on time for meaningful results,” Mr. LaPiana said.

The process now involves shipping a cooler filled with wastewater samples on a Cape Air flight to Hyannis, where it is picked up and taken to a testing facility in Sandwich. Then the cooler is shipped back to Vineyard Haven through the postal service.

The DPW received a financial commitment for the water testing laboratory and its certification from Tisbury Waterways Inc. (TWI), a non-profit group dedicated to protecting Tisbury’s water resources.

TWI offered $15,000 toward the project in July, 2008, and another $2,700 towards the application fee for state certification a month later.

The lab will serve a two-fold purpose: to meet the DPW’s need to test wastewater samples, as well as TWI’s need to monitor the effects of rain runoff on water quality in swimming and recreation areas.

“We’re trying to keep wastewater testing on the Island, which saves money and response time,” Mr. LaPiana said. “So if we can serve TWI’s concerns at the same time, it makes for a win-win situation.

“We’re leveraging both needs together to develop near real-time feedback on testing, in addition to eliminating many of the tests we ship off to the mainland,” Mr. LaPiana added.

With the public works commissioners’ approval, the DPW began setting up the lab at the wastewater plant in the spring of 2009 and began doing testing over the summer.

Last fall, as part of a two-step certification process, the lab passed quality control testing and is now finishing up the water quality testing and wastewater testing certification part of the process, Mr. LaPiana said. The final step is to staff the lab with personnel who are fully accredited.

Wastewater is tested to ensure certain parameters are met, as required for groundwater discharge under the provisions of the town’s permit for the wastewater facility, he explained. Daily lab results must be reported to the DEP every month.

“Certification will allow us to keep more of our testing on the Island, which will help us out considerably,” Mr. LaPiana said. “Some things we won’t be able to test for and we’ll still have to ship samples to other labs, but it will be less frequent.

Biologist Robert Culbert, who ran the Dukes County lab before it closed, is coordinating the water-testing lab and setting it up. John Grant, one of the wastewater plant operators, also contributes his efforts to the lab as a professional and registered chemical engineer.

Mr. LaPiana said there also are a few part-time employees, including Louis Hall Jr., an environmental science teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, who will assist by bringing the lab online this summer.

As it has from its start, TWI continues to use water testing as the basis of its work. The organization was founded in 1988 by a group of Tisbury residents who were concerned with the quality of the town’s water resources.

Throughout the first summer of TWI’s existence, the group took water samples from Vineyard Haven Harbor, Lake Tashmoo, and Lagoon Pond and installed pump-out stations for visiting boaters.

“We have expanded our program of testing, to try to figure out the effects of road runoff and what is carried into our storm drains,” TWI president Melinda Loberg said in a phone conversation with The Times. “This is one of the areas we as a town and a community might be able to impact as far as our quality of water.”

Ms. Loberg said TWI volunteers take samples within the first half-hour to an hour of rainfall to capture the first quarter inch of runoff to see how it impacts shellfish beds and swimming standards.

“The state requires the board of health to test swimming areas on a regular basis, and they do it like clockwork,” Ms. Loberg said. “TWI specifically collects test samples during rainfall to understand where pollution is coming from and how much there is, in order to know where to put our efforts in improving storm drains, whether through cleaning them or improving filtration before runoff gets to them.

“We use our testing to help the town focus its efforts to get more bang for the buck,” she concluded.

Assistant health agent Maura Valley said the Tisbury board of health currently sends water samples taken off town public beaches to the Wampanoag Tribe’s water testing laboratory in Aquinnah because the state contracts services there and pays for the testing.

Since the state contract already is in place for the 2010 beach season, the board of health will continue to send water samples to Aquinnah, she said.

Over the years TWI has raised money and funded a variety of projects in support of improved water quality on and around Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. LaPiana said he has worked on several projects with TWI and expects the group will continue to be supportive of the water-testing lab.

“Once you go through the process of getting all of your quality assurance testing done, a large part of keeping the lab up is nothing more at this point than just availing yourself of the service,” Mr. LaPiana said. “In this case, of course, TWI is more than willing to do that, because it does provide some advantages for them.”