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Terry Cowgill
The Great Barrington Fire District's headquarters on East Street, across from the Department of Public Works.

False alarm: Great Barrington’s water is just fine, thank you very much

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By Tuesday, Apr 17, 2018 News

Great Barrington — Customers of the town’s water company, also known as the Great Barrington Fire District, recently received a notice that the system had “violated a drinking water standard.”

The notice said customers need not boil their water but might want to consult a doctor if they have “specific concerns.” And get this: “People with severely compromised immune systems, infants, and some elderly may be at increased risk. These people should seek advice about drinking water from their healthcare providers.”

One customer who wished to remain anonymous contacted The Edge, somewhat apprehensive and wondering what it all meant.

“I have a compromised immune system so it scared me to read this,” she said. “I am thinking that it would be a good idea for you to alert people who are not aware of this situation, who work in GB that don’t live here, people eating in restaurants in town and people who rent their home and do not pay town water bills, etc. This, to me, is serious and people need to be alerted.”

So The Edge looked into the situation and found that, notwithstanding the alarming nature of language, there was no water-quality event that triggered the notice. It’s simply a temporary licensing issue.

The trio that runs the Great Barrington Fire District: From left, superintendent Pete Marks, district clerk and assistant treasurer Cindy Ullrich and Walter F. ‘Buddy’ Atwood III, who chairs the district’s Prudential Committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The letter actually says there’s nothing wrong with the water,” water superintendent Pete Marks told The Edge in an interview. As for the way the notice was worded, Marks added: “This is the state’s language. They require us to do it.”

Click here to read the notice. After announcing dramatically in the first sentence that, “Our water system violated a drinking water standard,” the letter explains three sentences later that, “Although we have several licensed primary operators for distribution services, we have had no licensed primary operator for treatment services.”

And according to Marks, it’s all because of a change in state drinking water regulations that were recently amended to require that all water systems using chlorination, which the fire district does, must have a treatment operator with a 1T license.

“They’ve made chlorination part of treatment where it used to be covered under distribution,” Marks explained.

So because of the change, Marks and others on his staff had to apply for the 1T license. He’s had an operator’s license for 22 years and it has even sufficed for the 15 years he has served as superintendent. But no more. Hence the letter mandated by the state.

The garage at the Great Barrington Fire District’s headquarters is spick and span. Photo: Terry Cowgill

How did he find out about it? “I got a one-line email wanting to know when the fire district was going to come into compliance.” So Marks took the test and has been informed that his license was approved April 6 by the state Board of Registration of Operators of Drinking Water Supply Facilities, which is a division of the Division of Professional Licensure.

Evidently the board is just as bureaucratic as its name. Marks hasn’t yet received the license because, he said, “I guess they got backlogged. This was a surprise to me.”

“It was a surprise to everyone on the board,” added Walter F. “Buddy” Atwood III, who chairs the fire district’s board, known as the Prudential Committee. “He’s passed the test, but we need the license in his hand.”

With an annual budget of $1.1 million, the fire district has 1,680 residential and commercial customers. That total does not include the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, which is served by the private Housatonic Water Works.

For a handy history of the Great Barrington Fire District, click here. Ann M. DeRuosi of the Board of Registration of Operators of Drinking Water Supply Facilities referred inquiries to board Chairman Michael Maynard, who did not return a message seeking comment.

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