Boil-water order lifted in Great Barrington, false-positive test at source for E. coli


GREAT BARRINGTON — The town's water department lifted a boil-water order Thursday after five fresh test samples revealed no E. coli bacteria.

A routine sample taken Tuesday, indicating the presence of the bacteria, was a false-positive, according to the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department.

The district issued the order Wednesday, when it received results from routine monthly testing.

Out of 10 samples, only one came up positive for E.coli bacteria.

It perplexed district officials, since it came from a deep draw at the town’s Green River infiltration gallery.

The other nine samples, taken throughout the district’s chlorine-treated water distribution system, were clear of the bacteria.

The district, which serves a population of around 4,100, had never seen E. coli in a sample taken from groundwater at 18 feet deep.

“We’ve been doing this for 150 years, and this is all new to us, too,” said Cynthia Ullrich, the district's clerk, before the order was lifted. “This [boil-water order] might be over the top, but we’re making sure we take every precaution.”

While the distribution system tested clear, the district and the DEP decided to issue the order, given how E. coli can wreak havoc on the very young or elderly, as well as people with weakened immune systems.

Fairview Hospital had to switch to bottled water, said spokeswoman Lauren Smith.

And in the town's Health Department, the phone has been ringing more than usual.

“We’re just trying to calm everyone down,” said Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk, as she waited for the new sampling results.

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Her office had to remind all food establishments to follow the boil-water order. She said that some had decided to simply close.

Ullrich said hospitals, nursing homes and schools were notified immediately Wednesday. The three schools in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District were not affected, since they have their own water source.

Ullrich said the district, which supplies water to about 1,695 customers, suspected a false positive.

Housatonic Basin Sampling and Testing performs the routine monthly tests, and those are shared with DEP.

While E. coli has never been found in the supply, it isn't impossible, said Water Superintendent Peter Marks.

Before the new results came back, he thought beavers could be responsible.

Also, Marks said the DEP thinks the Green River could send bacteria into the infiltration gallery.

“It’s classified as groundwater under the influence of surface water, because of the concrete chamber built in the 1930s off the river,” he said.

The district’s “2018 Consumer Confidence Report” warns that a DEP assessment rated the Green River gallery's susceptibility to contaminants as “high.”

“The shallow sand and gravel aquifer characteristics absence of hydrologic barrier such as clay make it susceptible to ground-surface contaminant migration,” the report says.

More generally, the report explains how other things can migrate into source water, including chemicals, metals and salts. Viruses and bacteria in source water "may come from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock operations and wildlife.”

More information about the town's water system can be found on the Fire District's website,, or by calling 413-528-0133. Also, MassDEP has more about boil-water orders at

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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