Pittsfield posts drinking water notice; employee faces disciplinary action


PITTSFIELD — The city Water Department has issued its second formal system failure alert this year, following a June 4 incident in which a chlorine disinfection system was disrupted after a water valve failed.

In addition to the early morning water valve failure at the East New Lenox Road Control Station, an unnamed department staff member who was on-call at the time faces possible discipline for disregarding an alarm from the automated monitoring system.

Personnel Director Michael Taylor said Tuesday that the disciplinary process for the employee is not yet complete but more information could be made available later this week.

Residents and water system users are being notified of the incident, which is mandated whenever a public system fails to meet a state drinking water standard. As with a problem that occurred at one of the two city water treatment plants in March, the incident is not believed to have resulted in a hazard to water customers.

A notice posted Friday on the city's website and also mailed to customers states that a water control valve at the East New Lenox Road flow control station "malfunctioned when it opened too wide, allowing a high flow of water into the distribution system. The chlorine treatment system adds chlorine gas to the water at a certain rate depending on water flow, but it could not add enough chlorine to match the high flow rate."

The problem continued for about five hours, according to the notice, in part because "the on-call operator was notified of this situation via an automated alarm system but the operator disregarded the alarms."

The notice states that "the on-call operator who disregarded the alarms is now subject to disciplinary action."

Commissioner of Public Utilities Bruce Collingwood said that after an investigation of the incident, disciplinary action was recommended. He referred further comment to the Personnel Department.

Despite the malfunction, when the minimum required amount of contact with the chlorine gas was not achieved, "no testing has shown disease-causing organisms or other pathogens in the drinking water due to this event," the notice states. "The chlorine treatment system was always operating during this incident."

The public is not required to take any action, such as boiling water before drinking, the notice states, adding, "the situation does not require that you take immediate action. If it did, you would have been notified immediately. Tests taken during this same period did not indicate the presence of bacteria in the water."

Collingwood had said relative to a similar notice issued in late April concerning the early March chemical pump failure and higher than acceptable water turbidity levels, that the city must work with state Department of Environmental Protection officials to determine whether a formal notice of the violation is required and then consult on the exact wording — a process that can take several weeks.

However, if there is a serious threat to water customers, he said, an immediate notice would be issued. The "tier of violation" seriousness is the determining factor, Collingwood said.

In the March incident, he said, editing of the notice between the DEP and the city took longer than for the June 4 malfunction, partly because of a delay in having the notices printed concerning the earlier event. The DEP was notified immediately in both cases.

In March, slightly higher turbidity occurred briefly after the city's Farnham Reservoir was brought back online after being off-line for a year while repair work was done on the dam and intake system.

The rise in turbidity triggered a monitoring system alarm. During the response by operators and a switch back to the backup reservoir and treatment system, a chemical treatment feed pump failed, allowing the turbidity level to rise. A spare chemical feed pump was activated and the turbidity level soon dropped, after being slightly elevated for about 90 minutes.

Collingwood said that on June 4, the operator on call received and acknowledged a notification by the electronic monitoring system, known as SCADA, but took no action to address the problem — a valve failure that allowed too much water to pass through, preventing a required level of "contact" with the chlorine gas.

The incident continued for about five hours but could have been resolved quickly, he said, as it eventually was by switching over to an alternate valve.

Collingwood said the valve that failed is scheduled for replacement this year.

He stressed that at no time did the chlorine disinfecting system fail, but the water's exposure to chlorine did not meet state standards for a time. "I think the effect was negligeable," he said. "The chlorine is very effective."

Collingwood said Mayor Linda M. Tyer was notified and she briefed city councilors about the incident.

Formal notifications of drinking water standards violations are sent to the city's 16,000 water customers and posted on the city's website, www.cityofpittsfield.org.

The city water system includes six reservoirs: Cleveland and Sackett reservoirs in Hinsdale; Ashley Lake, Lower Ashley, Farnham and Sandwash reservoirs in the town of Washington.

There are two water treatment plants, the Ashley Water Treatment Plant in Dalton and the Cleveland Water Treatment Plant in Hinsdale. Treatment at the plants includes removal of particulate matter, chlorination and use of additives to make the water less corrosive to water pipes.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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