GREAT BARRINGTON — State regulators are asking Housatonic Water Works Co. to find out why water samples showed high levels of a compound linked to cancer, as the company works to fix this latest in a series of water woes that has residents clamoring anew.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection said in a letter Monday to water works treasurer and co-owner James Mercer that while levels of haloacetic acid, a chlorine byproduct also known as HAA5, does not rise to a violation, the company will have to study its system and eliminate the problem.
The company will have to file a report about this with the agency by March 9.
When it learned of the elevated levels, the company began reducing chlorine, it said in a Jan. 10 statement that was sent to customers and posted to its website. The company also said the situation is not an emergency or hazard for most people.
“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 statement said.
It was water sampling in 2020 that revealed average levels of the compound at 65 parts-per-billion; and 73 ppb in 2021. The maximum level that regulators say are within safe limits is a 60 ppb average of a year’s worth of test results.
The public water supply is tested for the compound four times a year, in each quarter. From October 2020 to the present, the range of the compound was 44 ppb to 103 ppb, according to the company. In October 2021, levels were highest at 103 ppb.
The compound can possibly cause cancer and other health problems, according to the DEP. In its Tap Water Database, Environmental Working Group says haloacetic acids are also “harmful during pregnancy,” and “genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”
Haloacetic acid forms when chlorine, used to disinfect the water, binds to materials in the water source. Levels are “affected by seasonal changes in source water quality or by changing amounts of disinfection added,” according to the DEP.
Town Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk spoke to the Select Board about the elevated levels at its Monday meeting. She said she had gathered the test results from each quarter over the last two years. She told The Eagle she is surprised that the DEP waited until January to issue its notice.
"I am not sure why DEP is sending out a Notice of Non-Compliance now for the Haloacetic Acid 5 violation, when the 3rd quarter sample exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (60ppb) at 65ppb," she wrote in an email. "The last sample taken in December again exceeded the MCL at 73ppb."
The issue stirred a new wave of wrath among a number of the water company’s 850 customers. They have long struggled with discolored water and worries over the aging system. The outcry reached a crescendo in the last few years, prompting town officials to step in and weigh a buyout of the private utility.
The problem has also caused a dust-up at Flag Rock Village, a low-income housing complex run by the Great Barrington Housing Authority. Because the authority pays the water bill, it alone gets water notices. The notice about the HAA5 levels wasn’t posted to the community board by authority staff, said Marlene Koloski, president of the tenant association. Koloski said she had to do it herself.
Authority Executive Director Tina Danzy could not be reached to comment on this, as she is out of the office. Mercer, who also is chairman of the authority’s board, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The authority's staff do not drink from the tap. The authority office, located at the Flag Rock property, has purchased a bubbler for Berkshire Springs water. This has inflamed matters, Koloski said.
Some tenants, particularly those with health problems, have purchased reverse osmosis filtration systems, which are advertised as removing the compound, she added. Many can’t afford them, noting that water quality issues are ongoing.
“I get almost daily complaints about roily water,” she said.
As far as elevated HAA5 levels, the water company isn't alone. In Massachusetts, 168 utilities serving more than 5 million people have levels of HAA5 that exceed health guidelines, according to the EWG.