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Great Barrington health officials to 'push' town to fund bottled water for embattled Housatonic residents

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 — Health officials are concerned about the impact consuming Housatonic water might have on the young, the old and the ailing. They plan to press the Select Board to do something about it.

Residents told Board of Health members they are on the verge of taking their complaints to the next level.

“We’re really angry, and we’re really going to go nuts, and we’re going to have a protest and it’s not going to be a pretty picture,” resident Denise Forbes told health officials at their meeting last week. “So we need as much help as we can before things get really ugly.”

Board members urged nonviolence, but said they understood. They said they’ll draft a letter to ask the Select Board to come up with a plan that will likely involve the purchase and distribution of bottled water to customers of Housatonic Water Works Co.

One resident noted that officials have so far not said they would direct more than $2 million in pandemic relief money to the water problem. Select Board member Eric Gabriel had suggested the town do so.

But federal rules do not allow for the money to be spent this way, according to Town Manager Mark Pruhenski. He later told The Eagle the town is working on another source of revenue, and suggested it will succeed.

Calling the water “a public health hazard,” Dr. Ruby Chang, a physician and Board of Health member, said she is concerned about the elderly not getting enough water, or clean water. She’d like the board to take a stand about the potential for health risks.

“We also should draft in the letter that the town has to come up with some interim corrective measures while they’re deliberating behind closed doors,” Chang said. “We need to … do our part for public health … and push the Select Board into doing something more than just deliberating.”

Chang is referring to nearly monthly executive sessions by the Select Board to navigate a possible purchase of the waterworks. The water company is struggling to remove excessive manganese, whose levels soar during hot weather and turn the water shades ranging from tea to coffee.

Residents have, this summer, been agitating more than usual over ruined laundry and dark tap water.

Some have stopped paying their bills in protest.

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The company is testing a filtration system it will install if it proves successful at removing manganese.

That hasn’t been the only concern. Tests last year found elevated levels of a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer, though those have since fallen to levels that meet regulator approval.

Housatonic Water Works Co. haloacetic acids

Waterworks treasurer and co-owner James Mercer has previously said that record rains in July 2021 caused a spike in levels of haloacetic acid. Historically, the levels are below the threshold set by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Resident Hillary Rush told the health board there must be a way for the town to provide bottled water to low-income Housatonic residents.

Michelle Loubert pointed to the town’s plans to use for pandemic relief money provided through the American Recovery Plan Act.

“Not one red cent went to this issue,” she said, calling the problem hard on old and young alike. “These are people who have babies they can’t even bathe in this water,” she said.

Loubert chided the “best small town in the United States” that “won’t even help buy bottled water for its citizens.”

Board Chair Michael Lanoue, responding to residents, said he felt their pain and wished there was more the board could do.

He and Chang both said they had been told by town officials that there’s no money in the coffers for bottled water or filters.

Earlier this year, the board sent a letter to Mercer, asking if the company would pay for some sort of solution, like bottled water and water filters. Mercer declined.

Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk said she doesn’t think a letter to the Select Board will do much good.

“It’s not even a Band-Aid,” she said. She also noted that there are water bottle refilling stations outside Town Hall and the Mason Library.

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

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