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With report of high levels of haloacetic acid, Housatonic residents' frustrations with the water company escalate

GREAT BARRINGTON — A letter from Housatonic Water Works notifying customers that the system violated a drinking water standard for levels of haloacetic acid compounds, known as HAA5, came as a surprise to users — and town officials as well.

“We found out that there was an issue just like every other customer, by receiving the letter late last week,” said Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, during Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. “Our health department is working closely with officials at DEP, and specifically the drinking water program there. As soon as we have some more information to share with everyone, we will do so.”

The letter, which was mailed to users last week, indicated that it was just informational, and there was no action necessary for users.

“You do not need to boil your water or take other corrective actions. If a situation arises where the water is no longer safe to drink, you will be notified within 24 hours,” it stated. “If you have a severely compromised immune system, have an infant, are pregnant, or are elderly, you may be at increased risk and should seek advice from your health care providers about drinking this water.”

The notice stated, “Although this incident was not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what happened and what we have done to correct this situation.” Customers and town officials have complained about the aging water system for years, mostly over discolored water and deferred maintenance. The company serves 850 customers in Housatonic and some outlying areas of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

Waterworks co-owner and Treasurer James Mercer was put on the defensive Wednesday afternoon during a meeting of the Great Barrington Housing Authority, for which he serves as chairman.

Marlene Koloski, the president of the Great Barrington Housing Authority local tenants organization, and a resident at the housing authority’s Flag Rock Village, in Housatonic, said she and other tenants didn’t find out about the notice until this week.

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“Why weren’t we notified?” she asked Mercer and the housing authority staff. “Why did I have to see it on Facebook? There was a lack of communication somewhere.”

Mercer responded specifically to the matter of water quality.

“Now the hazards to individuals are for long-term use, like lifetime use, of high haloacetic acid,” he said. The high levels “happened on two occasions in two different months” and no one has been subjected to the high levels on a long-term basis, he said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection describes haloacetic acids as “a group of disinfection byproducts that form when chlorine compounds that are used to disinfect water react with other naturally-occurring chemicals in the water. There are five significant HAA potentially found in disinfected drinking water and their combined concentration is referred to as total HAA5.

“Levels of HAA5 can be affected by seasonal changes in source water quality or by changing amounts of disinfection added,” the state DEP says. “Water systems often can experience temporary increases in HAA5 due to short-term increases in chlorine disinfection. Chlorine disinfection increases can occur when there is a water main break, when water systems are under repair, or when there is a potential microbial (example: bacteria) problem or threat.

“All water systems that use chlorine to disinfect the water are required by federal and state law to sample for HAA5 on a regular basis (quarterly, or once every three months).”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state DEP have set a maximum contaminant level for HAA5 of 60 parts per billion (ppb). In its letter, the water company reported the average level from October 2020 through September 2021 was 65 ppb, and for January through December 2021, 73 ppb. From October 2020 to last week, the range of HAA5 was 44 ppb to 103 ppb, the letter stated.

The letter said the company has “reduced the chlorine dosing while maintaining more than enough chlorine residual to meet and exceed all disinfection requirements,” which is said should in turn reduce the HAA5 levels.

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.

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