Pittsfield water officials brief Council in wake of nearby PFOA problems

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PITTSFIELD >> The city's water supply is free of chemical contaminants and safe to drink.

Officials told members of a City Council committee this week that the system is unaffected by the industrial chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which was found recently in public water supplies in Vermont and upstate New York.

Public Utilities Commissioner Bruce Collingwood, water department Superintendent Brian Stack and treatment plant operator Robert Bondini met Wednesday with the Public Health and Safety Committee, after Councilor Peter White requested an update in light of PFOA found in nearby communities.

Responding to questions from councilors, the officials also addressed an incident in March that resulted in a minor increase in turbidity in city water, which was reported to customers as required by state and federal regulation, but not for several weeks after the incident.

Stack and Bondini said the turbidity occurred briefly after the city's Farnham Reservoir was brought back online in early March after being offline for a year while repair work was done on the dam and intake system.

The rise in turbidity triggered a monitoring system alarm, and 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. Asked to describe the level of turbidity, or cloudiness such as sometimes turns water brown, the water officials said it would be difficult to see in a glass of water and would have to be much higher to appear cloudy or brown.

Nevertheless, the officials said, each time a higher-than-acceptable level of a substance or chemical is detected in a public water system, the state Department of Environmental Protection or the federal Environmental Protection Agency must be notified. In the case of the chemical pump failure, the said, notifications were made immediately.

However, Collingwood said, whether there should be a notice of the standards lapse, and exactly what that notice should say to inform the public, must be decided, and a notice was prepared over the next few weeks with input and revision by regulators.

When the notification to the public and the city's 16,000 water customers was issued on April 22, there was criticism from some residents that it should have come sooner.

The city contacted the state immediately, Collingwood said, adding that the notification process is "all done under guidance of the DEP," and can require more than one revision of notices.

The April 22 notice also states in part, "Although this was not an emergency, you, as our customers, have a right to know what happened, what you should do and what we did to correct this situation."

Turbidity, according to the notice, "has no health effects," but it could interfere with disinfectant systems and "provide a medium for microbial growth."

In this case, the notice also stated, "You do not need to boil your water or take other actions."

Bondini and Stack said the city's water supplies come from six mountain reservoirs and two water treatment plants, along with five pumping stations, five water storage tanks and the distribution system with some 240 miles of water pipe. The reservoir water is considered "pristine," they said.

Testing is done in several ways and in numerous locations, and for a wide range of contaminants, including coliform bacteria, lead, copper, and a long list of chemicals or compounds.

Bondini said some testing is done daily, while other tests are conducted weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually or every few years. Schools are tested on a rotating basis for lead and copper in the water.

"We test for everything from A to Z," Bondini said.

He and Stack stressed that, unless water customers receive a formal notice of a problem, that means the water system is operating as it should.

The system is monitored 24 hours a day year-round, including during working hours and electronically after hours, with staff operators taking turns being on call for alerts.

Bondini said water samples periodically required by the EPA for PFOA and other potential contaminants did not detect any level of PFOA in city water supplies in 2015 testing.

Unlike in communities where above-standards PFOA levels were recently found in tests — like Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh in New York and sections of Bennington and Pownal in Southern Vermont — the city has no well water in its system. In those areas, industrial contamination is the suspected source of higher than EPA-accepted levels of PFOA.

According to information in the city's 2015 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report to the state DEP, there are six reservoirs — Cleveland and Sackett reservoirs in Hinsdale; Ashley Lake, Lower Ashley, Farnham and Sandwash reservoirs in the town of Washington. Use of the lands in the watersheds is restricted to protect the system from contamination.

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.

Information on the city water system and water quality reporting can be viewed on the city DPU home page, at www.cityofpittsfield.org/DPU/2015_Consumer_Confidence_Report.pdf.

Residents with questions also may call 413-499-9339.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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