In Berkshires, the water's fine - mostly
Review by Eagle finds contaminants in some of county's 42 waterworks systems, but at levels considered safe
Christine Koval won't even give what comes out of her taps to dogs.
Koval, 55, lives in Housatonic with her five border collies and 12 sheep. Over the past four months, her neighborhood has received brown water and water with a strong odor of chlorine.
"They say it's safe to drink, that it's within normal standards," Koval said. "Whatever. It looks disgusting."
Koval isn't alone in her skepticism, or her switch to bottled water. In her neighborhood, residents have resorted to buying bottled water or digging wells. Nationwide, 18 percent of people surveyed said they are suspicious of the H2O coming out of their faucets, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll.
Yet Berkshire County's drinking water quality is stellar — with some exceptions, according to state and federal documents as well as local water professionals.
In one year, six of the county's 42 waterworks systems delivered water containing contaminants above the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum levels for health and safety, according to an analysis by The Berkshire Eagle.
The releases were delivered to the homes of those systems' more than 24,400 customers — about 20 percent of the county population.
In all, eight contaminants at unsafe levels were pumped out to the public. The most common contaminant was manganese, a "secondary" contaminant that creates unpleasant odor and color in water but is not toxic to people unless at concentrations greater than 10 times the legal limit. Berkshire County water did not come close to this dangerous standard.
The municipal waterworks that had the most variety of contaminants were:
- North Adams Water Department, with 17 identified contaminants — two above maximum levels and four exceeding goal levels;
- Pittsfield DPU Water Department, with 16 — none above maximum levels and five above the goal standard;
- Lanesborough and Dalton Fire Water Districts had 12 contaminants, including three at levels above EPA goal standards for each facility;
- Lee Water Department had 11, with four contaminants above EPA goals.
The flip side, and good news, is that 85 percent of Berkshire County waterworks — 36 plants in all — didn't violate any EPA maximum contaminant level standards that year.
Of the waterworks serving 1,000 people or more, Sheffield Water Co. is providing the purest water, with two contaminants detected: radium and nitrate. The next-most-contaminant-free water comes from the Adams Fire District, which recently experienced a boil order, and Cheshire Water Department — three contaminants were found in each.
In fourth place for purest water is Williamstown with three contaminants. Hinsdale rounds out the top five waterworks with the least contaminant variety, at five.
With tap water, there will always be risks to public health — hopefully, small risks, said David Reckhow, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor of civil and environmental engineering who researches drinking water quality.
"Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, you accept risk, and we're not willing to give up our cars. When it comes to drinking tap water, we'd like it to be risk-free, but that's never going to be," Reckhow said. "It all kind of comes down to what kind of risk you're comfortable with."
The Eagle reviewed water quality reports assembled by EWG, a Washington-based drinking water advocacy group, and verified by EPA documents and local Consumer Confidence Reports.
The EWG data offer an in-depth snapshot of water quality, describing how many contaminants a system pumped out, at what concentration and whether any citations were issued. The most recent nationwide data are for 2015.
Because drinking water quality can fluctuate day by day — even hour by hour — the comparable data provide a picture of what issues local waterworks systems face and what might be in local tap water now.
In addition to manganese, water contaminants that surpassed maximum EPA levels were di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, tetrachloroethylene, chlorate and aluminum.
Of all the local waterworks that produced water with contaminants above EPA maximum limits, Heron Pond at Stockbridge and North Adams had the most variety that year. Heron Pond released water with manganese and di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate. North Adams released manganese and chlorate.
Other water systems that experienced spikes in contamination that exceeded EPA safety levels were:
- Briggsville in Clarksburg, which released too much tetrachloroethylene;
- Kripalu in Stockbridge and the Lenox waterworks had too much aluminum;
- Sheffield had too much manganese.
In all, The Eagle found 26 contaminants present in local drinking water — often at low levels, but above safety goals.
Berkshire County is lucky, Reckhow said, because of the area's excellent water. Much of the local drinking water comes from the mountains — a place with little human-made waste and pollutants. Cheshire water, for example, won this year's award for best-tasting water in Massachusetts by the Rural Water Association.
"We do everything by code," said Cheshire Water Department Superintendent Travis Delratez. "We do a lot of flushing and we're constantly testing our water, but a lot of [the quality] is because of Mount Greylock."
Most treated drinking water in the U.S. will contain contaminants — but at very low levels. Even Cheshire has hints of radium, nitrate and manganese in its water.
"Everyone wants the quality of their water to be better," Delratez said. "But like everything, you go to your bills, to your budget — and you budget for what you can do."
Reckhow, the UMass water specialist, said people often ask him if their water is safe to drink, but that's not the question people should be looking to answer.
"The water anywhere — almost anywhere — in a reasonably-sized community is safe," he said.
But each community needs to choose what is the right balance of drinking water risk and treatment investment for itself. For instance, if a town has nitrate in the water, but not at dangerous levels, it might just be a fact of life.
"You don't want to make the mistake of causing a lot of financial pain and find it's for no good reason," he said.
The EPA sets a variety of standards to monitor drinking water contaminants.
The most recognized are maximum contaminant limit (MCL) and maximum contaminant limit goals (MCLG), which are ideal benchmarks below the limit.
The most common contaminant in Berkshire County water is radium, a radioactive element that has been detected in water from 37 local water systems at levels below unsafe but above the EPA goal concentration, which, in this case, is 0.
Radium occurs naturally and is emitted from rocks and soil. It is often present in drinking water from below-ground sources in rocky or mountainous regions. Surface water is less likely to contain radium. The EPA said anything above 5 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) of radium is cause for concern and action, but most local water contains less than a single picoCurie.
Drinking high levels of radium over time can increase a person's risk of getting cancer, the EPA said.
The next-most-common contaminant in local waters is nitrate, a chemical that gets into water via fertilizer, leaking septic tanks and erosion of natural deposits. Nitrate was found at levels far below federal health guidelines at 33 local waterworks. The maximum limit is 10,000 ppb (parts per billion), but the most nitrate-contaminated water in the Berkshires recorded 2,400 ppb.
Drinking water with a high nitrate concentration is potentially fatal for babies younger than 6 months of age. While there are international agencies that consider nitrate a probable human carcinogen, the EPA does not.
The third-most-common local contaminant was BDCM (bromodichloromethane), a possible human carcinogen that results from adding chlorine to water — a nearly universal step in drinking water treatment that removes pathogens.
BDCM is a trihalomethane, a byproduct of drinking water disinfectant. At high doses, it can cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems as well as raise the risk of contracting cancer. In the Berkshires, the contaminant was discovered in 16 water systems at levels above the EPA's goal, but below the maximum limit.
"We want to balance the needs of adding a disinfectant and killing pathogens with the downside of producing some of these byproducts," Reckhow said. "It's an interesting balance and a complicated one."
Best tap water?
Though Cheshire holds the title, it's hard to judge which town or city has the best water in Berkshire County — at a certain point, it becomes subjective. But there are local water systems with fewer contaminants detected than others.
But fewer contaminants doesn't necessarily mean great water. Adams, which is among the communities with the fewest number of contaminants detected in its water, recently was under a boil order from the Department of Environmental Protection when E. coli was found in the drinking water. The ban has been lifted.
Good water can go bad in an instant, water professionals said. Droughts, heavy rains, a lack of oxygen in the water and wild storms are just some of the outside factors that can impact water quality.
"What you're looking for is turbidity," said Pittsfield Water Division Superintendent Brian Stack. "If it's cloudy, you know something happened."
Stack said the city of Pittsfield has a backup water treatment system that can kick in if there's a problem or if the machines are being cleaned. The treatment system is cleaned regularly, but at least once a year the entire operation is disassembled, cleaned and put back together.
"It can happen," Stack said of problem water. "In a perfect world, we fix it long before the public sees it."
Lenox Water Superintendent Bob Horn said weather often is tied to water quality issues.
"A lot of time, the customers' complaints are based on weather," he said. "We see a correlation with the problems of taste and odor happen here the following spring or summer after a drought."
Horn said the issue is water stratification. Sometimes, as still waters settle, substances with similar properties, such as salinity and temperature, create barriers to water mixing, which can lead to less oxygen in the water. To stave off this problem, Horn said the Lenox department got a grant over the winter to install solar-powered "mixers" that will stir the water reserves just enough to prevent stratification.
"With any luck, we'll have it installed in the next couple of months," he said.
Stack is proud of Pittsfield's water, though he noted that there were a few issues in 2016. That year, the waterworks had to issue two formal system failure alerts, when there was a temporary rise in turbidity (particles in the water) when the Farnham Reservoir was brought back online after repairs and another time when an on-call employee didn't respond to an emergency that was keeping the water from being fully disinfected.
The employee no longer works at the water division. Stack said the on-call employee debacle was a wake-up call. The water that was released didn't cause any problems — but what if it had?
"You can't put a Band-Aid on a water treatment plant; it's too important a function for that," Stack said. "You need to be ready, to be able to switch to the backup in a minute."
Stack said a recent software upgrade for the division should help improve monitoring at the plant. The key to any good waterworks is monitoring, Stack said. It's usually easy to spot problems in the water — it will look cloudy — but it takes vigilance.
"Pittsfield water is blessed with great resources [located in the mountains] above everyone else," Stack said. "We do a lot of testing. The goal is to see the elements that are coming up more and more [...] until it gets so high, we have to remove it."
Great water quality will always be a moving target, said Lenox Water Superintendent Horn, noting the occasional hardships systems need to address when water gets cloudy. In Housatonic, for example, Horn can understand the plight of the water department, which has issued safe, but sometimes-brown water to customers over the past several months, and the unsatisfied customers.
"This is something like a lot of utilities experience," he said. "Is it safe to drink? Yes, but of course they don't believe you. In Housatonic, they see brown water and they're told to drink it. If it was at my house, would I drink it? Probably not. Common sense won't let you."
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.
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