MIDDLETON — Town officials are waiting for more information before deciding what to do in response to a report that water containing potentially dangerous levels of nitrogen was being dumped into a well operated by the MIT Media Lab in the town of Middleton.
A joint investigation by Boston radio station WBUR and ProPublica, reported on Friday, found that the Open Agriculture Initiative had been dumping wastewater containing as much as 20 times the allowable concentration of nitrogen into a well.
The lab, located on Manning Avenue near the Middleton Jail, was researching various means of growing food, including hydroponically growing vegetables in water. But, according to the report, that research was generating hundreds of gallons of water with fertilizer that contained high amounts of nitrogen.
The lab had been permitted to build a wastewater well and to discharge water containing concentrations of nitrogen at no more than 10 parts per million, the report said. But a former employee-turned-whistleblower provided the two news organizations with documents indicating some concentrations exceeded 200 parts per million.
The report also said that the state Department of Environmental Protection is looking into the matter. The research has been halted, the report said.
DEP spokesman Ed Coletta said “MassDEP is concerned about the wastewater discharge from the Open Agriculture Initiative’s facility in Middleton and we’re looking into the issue further.”
Coletta said that because the matter is under investigation and involves a possible pending enforcement action by the agency, he is unable to comment further.
Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan said Friday that the town does not have much information, and is holding off on sending out any type of public notice until it learns more.
“We don’t want to alarm people unnecessarily,” he said.
“The town doesn’t have a regulatory role but we are certainly concerned about the groundwater supply,” said Sheehan.
High concentrations of nitrogen in surface water can contribute to the development of algae blooms that can be potentially dangerous. The report also pointed to potential health effects on infants.
The report said that there is no evidence any of the excess nitrogen has reached drinking water supplies or the Ipswich River.
Sheehan said the town’s water source is not located near the well in question, and he has no information suggesting that there is any contamination from groundwater.
Sheehan said the town has been in contact with MIT over the situation. “Historically, they’ve had a very good relationship with us,” he said.
Kaitlyn Shaw, science and restoration program manager for the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said any discharge in excess of regulatory limits is concerning, but the levels cited in the report are worrisome if confirmed.
“Groundwater would be affected first,” she said. That means nearby homes or businesses relying on well water will likely have to have their wells tested.
It’s hard to predict, without knowing what all of the levels were and for how long, what the “load” was over time.
If the discharged water reached the river, half a mile away, it could create algae growth.
Soil does contain bacteria that would help break down the nitrogen, but that process is slow, and with such high concentrations, it would take longer.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.