Wampanoag water testing lab seeks DEP recertification

The Wampanoag water testing lab is seeking DEP recertification. — Photo by Tony Omer

The Wampanoag Environmental Lab (WEL) in Aquinnah, which has been without a qualified director since September and lost its state certification in October, is in the final stages of re-certification with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Wampanoag natural resources department director Bret Stearns said this week.

The lab lost its state certification in October and failed a DEP inspection in March. A delay in gaining recertification would affect Island boards of health that have relied on the lab to test the water off beaches around the Island during summer.

In a telephone call Wednesday, Mr. Stearns stressed that the deficiencies cited in the DEP March inspection were not significant, adding that the lab is following the process for re-certification and expects to be recertified soon.

The Wampanoag lab is located off State Road, just past the Aquinnah-Chilmark town line, on the shore of Menemsha Pond. Owned and operated by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, it is funded by grants and income generated by testing. It is equipped with sophisticated electronic testing equipment.

Last September, longtime lab director Kendra Newick and her husband, Ezra, moved to New Zealand. A certified lab must have a qualified director who meets a stringent list of qualifications, according to DEP regulations. Loss of a director requires notification to the DEP within 30 days.

In a letter dated October 2, 2012, DEP director of laboratory certification Ann Marie Allen, said, “It has come to our attention through published reports and observations made by MassDEP personnel that Ms. Newick is no longer available at the Wampanoag Environmental Laboratory.”

Ms. Allen said the lab no longer met the DEP certification requirements and was downgraded to “not certified” status, effective October 16.

Decertification meant the loss of a contract with the state Department of Public Health (DPH) to test water samples provided by municipal health agents. DPH requires communities to conduct regular water tests at all public beaches.

The lab has also been unable to provide certified testing of drinking water for businesses and public water sources.

Testing continues

On Tuesday, Mr. Stearns responded to questions The Times provided in writing at the request of tribal administrators.

In an email to the Times, Mr. Stearns said, “The laboratory has continued to provide sampling and analysis throughout this transition period.”

He said private residences and most home inspectors do not require certified samples. “In cases where an analytical method is needed by a customer that the tribal laboratory cannot directly provide, accommodations are made to have another laboratory analyze the sample,” he said. “This has been the only change in procedure from the laboratory.”

Mr. Stearns said the laboratory is currently in the final stages of DEP re-certification for microbiology and has submitted an application to sample beach waters, as it has done for many years.

Mr. Stearns said the departure of Ms. Newick and the inexperience of the staff in place contributed to decertification.

“Due to the fact that the existing staff had never attended an audit, the state found the current employees ineligible to take over the certification without following a full application, which the Tribe is currently in the final stages,” he said. “There was a miscommunication with the state regarding the notification process which has been addressed directly.”

The lab has submitted a request for re-certification in microbiology utilizing existing staff members, according to Mr. Stearns. Andrew Jacobs, a natural resources department ranger, will serve as the laboratory supervisor and Mr. Stearns as the director. “The laboratory successfully passed the proficiency testing procedures,” he added.

“The Laboratory has made arrangements at its own expense to assure customers receive the analysis needed and required, even sending samples to other laboratories for analysis,” he said.

The Tribe also continues to seek a qualified candidate for a laboratory manager, Mr. Stearns said. He said that when a new laboratory manager is hired, the tribe will make application for the chemistry certification, which will allow a wider variety of certified analysis. “Until such time, arrangements will continue to be made to assist the Island with their water quality analysis needs,” he said.

Mr. Stearns said the DEP on-site inspection in March “identified corrective measures which needed to be addressed.” These included reformatting the display of the logbook, replacing a broken thermometer, creating a separate logbook for use of the autoclave (a sterilizing device), “and several other small items which were addressed within two days.”

He said the lab has responded to a request for more information. “It is our hope that certification will be approved quickly,” he said.

Island needs

In recent summers, the discovery of high levels of enterococci, an indicator bacteria, has led to Island beach closures. The proximity of the tribe’s lab meant that retesting could take place quickly and beaches reopened as soon as the bacteria levels returned to normal.

The lost of certification has local health officials scrambling to find alternatives before the summer kicks in. The Island towns must have beach water samples tested by a state-contracted certified lab on a weekly basis during the summer.

These samples must reach the testing lab within four hours of being pulled, according to West Tisbury board of health agent John Powers. “We will have to rush our samples to the airport to be tested by off-Island labs,” he said.

Drinking water tests are done on a more relaxed schedule. Some are done quarterly and some monthly, but they will have to go off-Island as well if the Wampanoag lab isn’t recertified, he added. Mr. Powers is responsible for testing the water at the West Tisbury School and the town hall among other places.

Mr. Powers said that schools, restaurants, public buildings, and all places that offer water to the public must be tested. The frequency of testing and the tests required are set for each location by the DEP, according to the history of past test results, water source type, and likelihood of possible contamination, he said. Each source requiring testing is on its own schedule.

Edgartown board of health agent Matt Poole said he is facing a similar situation and is not sure where he will send the town’s water samples. He said that he must test eight different sites weekly during the summer and that having to arrange for air shipping adds to what is already a time-consuming process.

Only Tisbury has a certified testing lab for beach water. The Tisbury lab cannot take on more work at the present time, but that may change, according to Tisbury Department of Public Works (DPW) director Fred Lapiana.

Located at the town’s wastewater treatment plant, the Tisbury lab does not have the personal currently to test water from the other towns, he said. The lab is not certified for testing drinking water.

Approval of a full-time lab director position and an additional DPW employee at last week’s town meeting may eventually allow the Tisbury lab to test other Island town beach samples, he said.

Mr. Lapiana said he is sympathetic to the other towns’ needs, but Tisbury cannot consider more work until a new director is hired, and that will take some time. “It’s a difficult situation because individuals who have that education and experience are very difficult to come by,” he said.