City set to sniff out contamination

SOUTH PORTLAND – It’s not unusual for municipalities to use a small, moving camera to test sewer pipes for breaks or leakage, but next week the city of South Portland will turn to a new tool in an effort to finally determine what is causing occasional high bacteria counts at Willard Beach.

Two specially trained dogs, from Environmental Canine Services, will be on hand Tuesday, May 6, to smell the stormwater outfalls at the beach in order to discover whether there is any cross-contamination from the city’s sewer lines.

Fred Dillon, South Portland’s stormwater program coordinator, said he’s been frustrated by not being able to reach a “definitive conclusion” that there is no human factor in the high bacteria counts found at Willard Beach during the past several years.

He said using the dogs would provide “another triangulation” in the effort to pinpoint the source of the contamination at the beach. Dillon said prior testing has “not been conclusive” and so he jumped on the opportunity when Environmental Canine Services and FB Environmental offered to conduct a dog study of the issue for free.

He said if the source of the high bacteria is human-based there’s something the city can do to ensure no gray water gets into South Portland’s stormwater system. However, if the source is non-human, Dillon said the solution gets “thornier” and includes public education and outreach, particularly to pet owners about picking up after their animals.

Environmental Canine Services, which is based in Portsmouth, N.H., was established in 2009, and according to the company’s website a study by the University of California Santa Barbara to evaluate the dogs’ ability to detect human sewage in stormdrains resulted in 100 percent accuracy when at least one human marker was present.

The company uses special, scent-trained dogs to detect and track human source fecal contamination in stormwater systems, according to its website. Dillon said prior to the visit to South Portland next week, the two dogs being used will work with a sample of the city’s gray water.

Then they will be taken to various manhole covers along the stormwater system that empties out onto Willard Beach in order to determine whether there is any contamination from the city’s sewer pipes. Dillon said the whole process could take about two hours, 10 a.m.-noon, and the public is welcome to observe.

The Environmental Canine Services website said, “whether the (contamination) source is a broken sanitary sewer, cross-connected pipes or a failed septic system, the canines can be deployed as a rapid screening method to locate and track the source.”

The website also said that what is so beneficial about using the dogs is that they “give immediate results in the field with a presence/absence response,” which reduces the costs of sending water samples to a lab and then waiting for the results.

Dillon said his plan is to start at the end of the stormwater system near the snack bar at Willard Beach and then work upstream, “sampling selected key junctures in order to isolate portions of the system.”

According to its website, Environmental Canine Services often works in partnership with FB Environmental, which has an office in Portland.

FB Environmental works with federal and state environmental protection agencies, as well as municipalities like South Portland, and offers water quality monitoring and assessment services, along with watershed and stormwater management planning, wetland delineation, habitat assessment and more.

Dillon is not sure what his next step will be if the dogs do not find a human source for the contamination, but he said high bacteria counts are often the price paid when a natural area like the Willard Beach neighborhood is highly developed.

That’s when education and outreach to residents becomes even more important, he said.

A dog named Sable and its handler from Environmental Canine Services check out a beach’s drain outlet at Lake Michigan. 

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