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Legislature kicks in $100,000 to address Housatonic water discoloration problem

Reed Anderson holding jar of dirty tap water

Reed Anderson, a customer of Housatonic Water Works Co., holds a sample of his water in July 2021. The state Legislature just approved a $100,000 earmark for Great Barrington to provide relief to Housatonic residents struggling with yellow-to-brown water as well as the costs of buying bottled water and extra filters. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — A long-awaited Legislative earmark will help Housatonic residents struggling with drinking water problems. The money was secured last week after Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on a larger economic development package.

That $3.8 billion includes the $100,000 allocation to Great Barrington to bring financial help to customers of Housatonic Water Works Co. who are having to spend extra money on bottled water and filters as they deal with discoloration, as well as other quality issues linked to health problems.

The Legislature’s package is meant for critical infrastructure investments across the state, as well as towards hospitals and housing initiatives, according to a statement Thursday from the office of state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who helped push the earmark along.

It was outgoing state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who filed the earmark.

“It is clear more needs to be done to protect access to safe and clean water, so when this bill was before the Legislature this summer we had to act,” Hinds said in a statement.

Pignatelli said his office continues to work closely with the town as well as with the state Department of Environmental Protection – one of the waterworks’ regulators – to troubleshoot long-term solutions.

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said the town is grateful for what he called “seed money” that would help with short-term solutions until long-term fixes can be made.

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Pruhenski will be presenting options to the Select Board at an upcoming meeting. Those include buying reusable 5-gallon water jugs for every household for the worst eight to 10 weeks of summer when manganese is likely to spike again,” he said in an email; offering small grants or reimbursements to homeowners for the installation of filtration systems; or buying a water jug filling station for Housatonic water customers.

“A fourth option could be a simple grant or reimbursement to homeowners to help offset the cost of purchasing bottled water when necessary,” Pruhenski added.

The water situation has worsened in the last few years. The town’s Planning Board told the Select Board the water issue is hindering economic development in Housatonic.

Town officials and water customers have been clamoring for help from state officials. Discoloration increases during warmer months, with water color ranging from yellow to dark brown.

Woman with two protest signs in Housatonic

A protester in August with signs at Town Hall in Great Barrington. Up to 80 people came to protest the condition of Housatonic water. The discoloration problem worsened last summer, as hotter weather made manganese from the Long Pond source proliferate. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, filed a $100,000 earmark for Great Barrington to provide short-term relief to Housatonic water customers.

A spike last year in haloacetic acids – a compound linked to cancer – set off new protests from customers that included some withholding bill payments from the company, and landing in small claims court.

The Select Board has held closed-door sessions with the town’s attorney over possible solutions that includes the town buying the waterworks.

There is good news on the manganese front, a company engineer said Tuesday at a presentation.

Tests of a filtration system to remove manganese from its source water is a success so far, said Robert Ferrari of Northeast Water Solutions.

The DEP requires the company to test the system for four quarters before the state will approve its purchase of a permanent filtration system estimated at up to $2 million.

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

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