Great Barrington wants to cut Housatonic water rates over dirty water, while other options pursued

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GREAT BARRINGTON — With the replacement of Housatonic's old cast-iron water mains a long way off, town officials Monday said they planned to work with state regulators to see if Housatonic Water Works Co. could lower prices for its customers.

The town also has hired engineers to study the company's water system in hopes of possibly merging it with Great Barrington's system, in an effort to eventually fund the replacement of the deteriorating pipes — pegged at $22 million by a 2018 study.

James Mercer, treasurer and co-owner of the company, told the Select Board that the state Department of Public Utilities has to approve any rate changes or rebates. The board voted to work with the agency to help customers with rebates.

Mercer also is planning to hold an information session at 6 p.m. Thursday on Zoom to explain efforts to control the churned-up sediment in the pipes, and to answer questions from the company's 840 ratepayers.

The problem is long-standing. Rust flakes from inside the water mains get stirred up during routine flushing, especially in warm weather. Also, chlorine can make the problem worse. About 80 percent of the private company's 19 miles of mains date to the 1860s, and Mercer has said that embarking on more pipe replacements would drive up rates to a level that the DPU would not approve.

While the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency say that rusty water is safe to drink, customers are wary of consuming water that ranges in color from yellow to brown. And many say they spend extra money for bottled water and filters. The water also stains porcelain tubs and toilets, and laundry whites.

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A slew of complaints from fed-up customers over the most recent episode of water that runs in shades ranging from yellow to brown has galvanized the Select Board, which last month decided that the matter would remain on every agenda until a solution was in hand. Residents have taken to Facebook with photos of their filled tubs, for instance, and they told the board they shouldn't have to pay fully for substandard water.

"Out of the last bill I just got Saturday, I had three days — three days — of clear water," said Elizabeth Rockefeller. "So, if I average out what I pay per day for water, I should only have to pay him 4 dollars and 32 cents for July."

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A spokesman for the DPU would not comment on whether it would be possible to reduce the company's rates. But, state law says that "the Attorney General, mayor of a city or the selectmen of a town, or twenty customers can petition the DPU either as to the quality or price of the water an investor-owned company sells to them."

The water is safe to drink, according to DEP officials. They told the board that routine sampling shows the water meets their benchmarks, adding that rust is not something they can regulate, so, there are no standards in place.

"You're looking at old iron pipes, and it's really a challenge," said Brian Harrington, the DEP's deputy regional director for the Bureau of Water Resources.

What the DEP can do is regulate the company as it tries to adjust additives to the water, as it did when it cited the company in 2018 for spikes in chlorine levels, he said.

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Mercer said that the company checks chlorine levels daily, and the water is tested weekly for bacteria. He also said he has hired a consultant that specializes in solving discolored-water problems, and is considering adding a chemical that will coat the pipes and stop the release of rust.

A consultant studied the Housatonic and Great Barrington water systems and said they could be merged.

But, it will take many years, and residents have grown weary.

"This has been the worst water I have ever seen, and I've been here since '83," said Tony Passetto. "Yesterday, it was like iced tea."

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


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