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Other communities have bought troubled private water companies. Will Great Barrington buy Housatonic's?

Housatonic water system

Two jars of water filled at two different times in August, 2018, during a flush of Housatonic Water Works Co.'s system.

GREAT BARRINGTON — A petition with 1,200 signatures and a letter hit the desks of Gov. Charlie Baker and other top officials last week, raising hopes it will eventually end bouts of discolored water in Housatonic.

Petitioners are asking for the state to help the town buy Housatonic Water Works Co., and merge it with the town’s larger system to make it easier to pay for an overhaul of the aging system. They point to two other municipalities in the state that have bought a troubled, private water company.

“We need your help to make sure Housatonic does not become a Massachusetts mini version of the Flint, Michigan water crisis,” Gregory and Forbes wrote.

The state Department of Environmental Protection continues to say that the water is safe to drink, though last year it flagged elevated levels of a compound linked to cancer and ordered the water company to get it under control. The company says those levels have since decreased, but it sliced further into residents’ confidence in the safety of the water.

James Mercer, co-owner and treasurer or the company, continues to point to water test results that show the increase is a historical anomaly set off by record rains last July.

Yet customers have grown increasingly frustrated in recent years over discolored tap water.

This summer the waterworks will conduct a pilot study of a new filtration system to see if that could be a long-term solution to a problem that is affecting many — but not all — of the company’s roughly 850 households and businesses in Housatonic and outskirts.

Those from the group Residents for Clean Water who are spearheading this effort point to two other municipalities — Hingham and Milton — that recently acquired private water companies that served those communities. Both systems had a number of problems, including discoloration. In Milford, contaminants stirred trouble — and a class action lawsuit. In Hingham, the water mains broke a lot.

In a companion letter to Baker, petition authors Sharon Gregory and Denise Forbes explained the history of the problem and what they believe needs to be done.

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“The proposed solution would be for the Town to purchase HWW, with guidance from your Administration along with infrastructure funding from the Commonwealth and potentially other available resources, including bond financing if appropriate,” they wrote.

But it can’t happen without an audit and a valuation by the state Department of Public Utilities, one of the water company’s regulators, they wrote. The DPU, so far, hasn’t been engaged in the matter, but that will be discussed at the Select Board’s next closed-door session, said board Chair Stephen Bannon.

He noted that after the town reached out to Baker in 2020 for help with the situation, it didn’t get a response.

The board continues to troubleshoot the issue, and meets in closed-door sessions regularly, Bannon noted. While he can’t divulge what’s been discussed in those, he said the situation is a true conundrum.

“There’s nothing simple here,” he said.

Gregory, who has a finance background, has studied the Hingham and Milford acquisitions, and said it took time for the towns to seal the deal.

“In both towns … it was toyed with for a while, and then they got serious about it and went through getting a DPU audit,” she said.

Gregory said she, Forbes and others want town officials to know they are supported in what might look daunting.

“I just wanted to encourage the Select Board that there are many people who would back this next step to help them have an intention to push this,” she said.

Mercer, the owner, did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but previously has said the company’s charter has a provision for a purchase.

“They have the option to buy it for fair market value that is established by a specialized appraiser, not an engineer,” he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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