Return of 'dirty water' sparks fresh concerns for Housatonic residents

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GREAT BARRINGTON — While drinking water in Housatonic is deemed safe, it doesn't look that way.

It's yellow and brown — again.

"It seems like it's all the time," said Amy E. Taylor, a resident of Mountain View Avenue, speaking to the town Select Board Tuesday.

She said that just before the meeting, she went to bathe her 13-month-old baby after "spaghetti night" only to find that water flowing into the bathtub was brown. "It doesn't look safe, it doesn't smell safe," Taylor said, noting that she had another episode of brown water Wednesday, but by the afternoon, it was clear.

What isn't clear is how to solve the problem. Even before this latest spell of roily water, North Plain Road resident Debra Herman made an appointment with a Boston attorney, who offered her and other water customers a free consultation. After exploring the issue with various state and local officials, Herman said it's time to band together to find out what the rights the customers have — customers who say they are demoralized from fear, ruined loads of laundry and extra money spent on bottled water.

"People are talking about selling their houses and leaving," Herman said. "People are wondering if they can stop paying their bills. Can we withhold payment? Can we submit bills for expenses?"

Customers of Housatonic Water Works, all 840 of whom reside in Housatonic village and outskirts, are complaining again of an increase in discolored water flowing from their faucets. Roily water, in which turbulence from routine flushing releases rust sediment from old cast-iron pipes, is a longtime problem for the private water company, since about 80 percent of its mains were installed in the 1880s. Water company officials have said they've made some replacements. But replacing 17 miles of aging water mains would significantly hike water rates.

James Mercer, treasurer and co-owner of the water works, said this latest episode is the result of the company's most recent flush, which began Tuesday, and will run through Oct. 23. The company posted an announcement of the flush on Facebook, on its website, and included it in customers' last bill mailings. Those notices said the flush is an attempt to wash out remaining rust sediment. It is also to prepare the pipes for winter, Mercer told The Eagle.

But ever since two summer flushes yielded water ranging in shades from yellow to brown, customer concerns have grown louder, increasing pressure on the company about the frequency of these roily water bouts.

While the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency say rust, while a nuisance, is safe to ingest, customers like Taylor can't seem to get their heads around it.

"I just don't trust the water," said Mellonie Noble, who lives on Wyantenuck Street. "I have a filter in the fridge for the water, and I'm buying water still. It's scary."

Noble, who said the water has since cleared, also said she also just can't bear to shower in it. While customers do receive notice of the flush and potential for roily water, customers are sometimes unpleasantly surprised, since the notice provides a window of dates.

"Ta-da — I had to get ready to go to this meeting, and I can't shower," Noble said. "And [there were] people that had a load of laundry in the wash that's [been] destroyed."

Taylor said she was also caught by surprise when it was her baby's bath time.

"The notice says, 'sometime during the month your water will be brown, FYI,' is not really a useful notification. It's barely a notification."

'I don't know what to say'

Mercer is also frustrated. He said these roily spells are nothing new for a company that's been dealing with rusty water for decades. Yet customers, he added, are growing more agitated, regardless.

"Some are reading the literature and are just very cognizant of what we're doing, and others are just very irate and I don't know what to say," Mercer said. "I'm surprised we're getting so much press on this when every utility flushes their water lines and every utility has roily water when they flush."

This is true, said Peter Marks, the Great Barrington Fire District's water superintendent. During a flush, "there's more flow than [the system] sees under its highest normal demand."

Marks also said there are other factors, like the kind of main in front of a house. And there is "always" going to be rust sediment in any system with the old cast-iron pipes, and even fine amounts of sand, he noted. "And the higher the demand the more sediment that's going to be introduced into the system as well."

Mercer had hinted at an August community meeting about the roily water that the company is looking into new funding pathways, noting that private companies are not eligible for government funds. Mercer said he could not comment on whether he has discussed the situation with state legislators who are following the matter and thinking about solutions.

Customers losing patience

Meanwhile, the company, which pumps water from Long Pond Reservoir, has increased water testing to every two weeks and will soon complete the addition of a new line that will homogenize chlorine levels. All of this was mandated by the DEP in response to agency monitoring of chlorine levels and customer concerns.

But customers are getting angrier and looking at different options.

Noble, who has a 9-year-old son, is thinking of moving. Despite the DEP oversight, she's still worried.

"Is this safe for these tiny little bodies?" she said. "Between the taxes and the dirty water, it's just not OK."

"We have a community that doesn't have clean water," Michelle Loubert told the board Tuesday, suggesting all effort and money to fund other projects and solve other problems in town should be redirected to the water problem. "Mercer should be called in. ... I really expect the town to step up on this."

And Herman is about to step into a lawyer's office.

"It's very clear to me that the problems with the water are not going away," she said. "That even if they had the money tomorrow, it would take time to fix. Nobody has the money, nobody has a plan."

But she did say that "everyone is sympathetic."

"Even Jim Mercer is sympathetic. But nobody has an answer. I guess I'm a squeaky wheel."

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


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