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Was a fix for Housatonic's brown water intentionally delayed? Regulators and the company play the blame game

Housatonic water protest

A protester on Saturday with signs at Town Hall in Great Barrington. Up to 80 people came to protest the condition of Housatonic water. The discoloration problem worsened this summer, as hotter weather made manganese from the Long Pond source proliferate. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — A filtration system that might address discolored water in Housatonic is being installed only this week, after a summer of protest and outrage.

Enter the blame game.

After proposing it in late May, Housatonic Water Works Co. on Wednesday began installing a “greensand” filtration system to test whether it will remove excess manganese that is causing faucets to run yellow or brown. The problem worsens during summer’s warmer temperatures.

On Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will inspect it for final approval, said the waterworks treasurer and co-owner, James Mercer.

The DEP, in a Sept. 1 letter, suggested the delay by the waterworks was intentional.

“Given the fact that HWWC has not requested an inspection of its proposed pilot treatment system yet, the Department is concerned that HWW, despite its statements, is not interested in capturing the most challenging season in 2022,” wrote Deidre Doherty, the DEP’s Drinking Water/Municipal Services Chief in its Western Regional Office.

Mercer, however, wonders why the DEP waited until Aug. 1 to conditionally approve the pilot study.

“Get the DEP to explain,” Mercer told a reporter, when asked about Doherty’s Sept. 1 letter. “We share [residents’] frustration but we are really hemmed in ... by the regulatory agencies. We empathize with all our customers.”

A number of factors played into the end-of-summer DEP approval, including that the initial application from the waterworks required extra work because it was “technically deficient,” a DEP spokesperson, Catherine Skiba, said by email.

The agency also had problems of its own. So did other communities. “In addition, critical drinking water issues and projects at other Public Water Systems requiring simultaneous staff review, together with staffing limitations this summer affected the review,” Skiba said.

Skiba also noted that it has taken the waterworks more than a month to have the filtration system ready for the agency to inspect.

In part, that’s because of an Aug. 17 request from the company, asking whether the pilot study could be limited to summer, rather than all four seasons, as the DEP requires. Mercer says the problem is a “seasonal (summer) phenomena.”

The DEP said no to this change — and that “full-year piloting” of the filtration system is standard and necessary.

‘Far too long’

The agency’s letter arrived the day before as many as 80 people protested in front of Town Hall amid a summer of water that, for many, ranged from yellow to brown.

The problem has had residents buying bottled water, constantly replacing water filters and bathing and doing laundry elsewhere.

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Some people stopped paying their water bills in protest.

The company’s engineers believe the filtration system will remove naturally occurring manganese that proliferates in hot weather — a problem shared by other water systems, including in Scituate.

If it works, the company will buy a system, a move that will also eventually raise rates.

Despite the water’s appearance and some alarms over elevated levels of a carcinogen last year, the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency continue to deem it safe to drink. The levels of the carcinogen have been falling ever since, and have further dropped, according to August testing.

The town’s Board of Health is concerned about all of it, and is asking the Select Board to help residents.

Regardless, residents have lost confidence in the water system. They’ve pressured town officials, who have met regularly in closed-door sessions about possibly buying or taking over the waterworks and fusing it with the larger Great Barrington system.

No one will say what progress has been made in those meetings. Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said there is nothing he is able to share.

Mercer declined to comment on anything to do with these sessions and whether he is involved in them.

Frustrated, town officials are looking to the state — something that so far has proven fruitless. “This should be in the state’s hands right now,” Bannon said, when asked if voters should decide whether the town should acquire the company. “I was really happy to see that the people of Housatonic are trying to get the state to realize that everything is not OK.”

Housatonic water protest

People protest Housatonic's water conditions on Saturday at Town Hall in Great Barrington.

He noted that the board’s two letters to agencies and top state officials — including Gov. Charlie Baker — brought no response. “That doesn’t mean we’re giving up,” Bannon said. “It means we have to try harder.”

The key is getting the waterworks’ other regulator, the state Department of Public Utilities, to respond to the company’s violation of its regulations, say Trevor and Denise Forbes.

The Housatonic couple have written regulators and organized meetings and petitions, as well as Saturday’s protest. They plan to continue their work.

“This has been going on far too long,” Trevor Forbes said of the water situation. “We’re looking at all viable options.”

The couple hopes the DPU will lay groundwork for the town to take the water company by eminent domain. Eventually, they’d like the state to help local taxpayers fund an overhaul of the waterworks.

The DPU’s website says its mission, in part, is to “ensure that consumers’ rights are protected, and that utility companies are providing the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or

413-329-6871.

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