GREAT BARRINGTON — Should the federal infrastructure bill pass Thursday, it is unclear whether some of that money will make its way to Western Massachusetts to help a small, failing water company.
Massachusetts lawmakers say that it’s unlikely without Great Barrington first buying Housatonic Water Works Co. and merging it with the Great Barrington Fire District Water Co.
And a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, told The Eagle that Neal’s office isn’t sure — that decisions around spending on clean drinking water and wastewater projects across the U.S. are left to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“Once the bill is passed, we will consult with the EPA again to determine whether or not communities in western Massachusetts will qualify for these federal funds,” said William Tranghese, Neal’s press secretary.
The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as written, earmarks $55 billion to upgrade water systems nationwide, making “the largest investment in clean drinking water and waste water infrastructure in American history, delivering clean water to millions of families,” according to the White House website.
Questions about the federal money coincide with another episode of coffee-colored water spewing from faucets of waterworks customers — the result of work to some hydrants this month.
But, some of the company’s 850 customers say that, even absent the water-roiling work to the system, they have got random bouts of water like weak tea issuing into their sinks and tubs, and ruining their white linens.
The company’s research blames it on excessive, naturally occurring manganese at the Long Pond source. But, there are other problems that the state says the company has to fix, mostly a vast replacement of mains, and doing that will cost about $30 million, putting the waterworks that much in the red. State regulators say the water is safe to drink.
James Mercer, co-owner of the waterworks, said he is working with the state for permission to test out equipment that would remove that manganese, and if it works, the company will buy it.
State lawmakers are well-versed in the situation and have been working with the town, and they occasionally received photos of bathtubs filled with dark water. They agree that it is a pressing issue.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, says the water system likely will need to be absorbed by the Great Barrington system to be eligible for any state money — and that which flows from federal sources. And this will involve the town buying the waterworks and figuring out how to protect ratepayers in Great Barrington, who would have to shoulder the cost of the overhaul.
“You have to have a willing seller,” Pignatelli said of the company. “But, there’s nothing that I can do at the state level or congressman Neal can do at the federal level until the town acts.”
And Pignatelli said there will be many cities and towns clamoring.
“You just start doing the math,” he said.
Mercer said he has not had any discussions with town officials about a town purchase of the system.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the question of merging the waterworks with the town’s water district has to be squared away, but in the meantime, he wants to explore finding state money for filters for waterworks customers, many of whom are buying bottled water or expensive filtration systems on top of paying their water bills.
“In the short term is the grave concern of the water quality, and the amount of money that residents and customers are putting forward to remedy those problems,” Hinds said.
Great Barrington resident Reed Anderson is one of those who lately is voicing his frustration after hydrant work turned his water dark this month. He sat outside a cafe, with a tea-colored sample of it in a mason jar, particles and strands floating. It has been much worse than this, he said.
“There were deposits that were this otherworldly brown,” he said. “It was four days of my kids not being able to drink the water. We’re not talking about small, micro-level floaties, we’re talking about macro-level debris.”
At the heart of Anderson’s frustration is that he has to pay a utility that isn’t performing, and pay more to run the water to try to clear it.
“If [the water] was a pizza you got served at a restaurant, you’d send that pizza back, right? If it was a wedding cake or a wedding dress, you wouldn’t pay. Nobody would by a car that was the equivalent of Housatonic water. ”