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Residents disappointed in MassDEP response concerning HWW crisis

Resident attendees were disappointed with both the answers from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection officials and the Board of Health's line of questioning the offials in a meeting held on Thursday, October 6 regarding the ongoing crisis with Housatonic Water Works.

Great Barrington — Representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection answered questions from members of the Board of Health during the board’s meeting on Thursday, October 6. However, residents attending the meeting were disappointed with both the answers from MassDEP officials and the board’s line of questioning.

Representing MassDEP were Deputy Regional Director Brian Harrington, Drinking Water Municipal Services Chief Deirdre Doherty, and Director of Research and Standards C. Mark Smith. Board Chairman Michael Lanoue asked the three a series of questions from both board members and residents.

“When MassDEP gives a time limit to HWW to make changes, and nothing happens, how can the citizens trust the authority of MassDEP?” Lanoue asked. “There are lots of back-and-forth emails and orders, but I’ve never seen any fines or other punitive measures.”

“Fines and punitive measures are sort of the last resort,” Harrington said. “The goal is to bring a [water] system back into compliance. That involves a lot of back and forth with a party.”

Harrington said that MassDEP has standards that need to be reached when it comes to drinking water and that the organization’s actions and penalties “are done as a committee and not as individuals making judgment calls on behalf of the Commonwealth.”

“Is a situation like this that has been going on for years and years normal?” Lanoue asked. “This problem is many years old.”

“It’s not unusual that these issues can go on for a number of years,” Harrington said. “Typically, once problems are identified, there is a study and a sampling review process, then a permitting process before a project goes out for construction.”

Harrington then referred to continuing disinfection byproducts problems with Springfield’s water supply. “They have been dealing with that for a number of years,” Harrington said. “It’s going to be a number of years to get their facility constructed in order to deal with these problems. It’s a much larger water system, but I think that all water systems are, unfortunately, expensive to maintain and operate. I think we see a lot of deferred maintenance across the Commonwealth in terms of water systems.”

Lanoue asked if the elevated levels of manganese are the only contributor to HWW’s water problems.

“We believe it’s the primary contributor,” Harrington said. “There could be other materials in the distribution system that might be a source of some of the color, but it’s one of the issues we’ve identified as part of the pilot study.” Harrington added “there could be some other causes as well,” but he did not specify the other possible causes.

“What is the scientific evidence that we can relate to our citizens regarding the safety of the water that is being provided to them?” Lanoue asked. “We know that there have been these issues with manganese and haloacetic acid. We’ve talked a little bit about people making decisions based on the water that they’re getting. We’re sometimes at a loss of how to address concerns, especially long-term concerns.”

“We do have a fair amount of information on these issues on our website for individuals,” Harrington said. “There are some publications from our Office of Research and Standards that will help in understanding the different levels and what those levels may mean. In the event that there is an exceedance of threshold [levels], there are public notice provisions that kick in at certain points.”

Lanoue asked if there is a timeline for any upgrades to HWW’s water delivery system, and in response Harrington did not give a specific timeline. “I know that the [present] focus is on the treatment side and trying to deal with those immediate issues,” Harrington said. “I think in terms of a return for the effort and the cost, that it’s most likely to have the broadest and quickest results to benefit the most consumers. The other parts take longer, and it’s a challenge, especially for an older system where you have a mix of materials and pipes. This was done for a section of the system a number of years ago, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of the rest of the water distribution system.”

Lanoue asked if there is a chance for the town to obtain state funds to provide residents with safe drinking water.

“All public water systems are eligible under our state’s Revolving Fund,” Harrington said. “There are loan opportunities that are available to all public water systems, even those that are owned by a private water company. They have to establish the ability to repay the loans. That’s available, but I don’t have any information on specific grants that are available for this situation.”

During the public comments portion of the meeting, residents said that they were not happy with the responses from the MassDEP representatives. “What the representatives said indicates that there’s no real movement that will take place that will affect the quality of water for customers, probably for many years,” resident Trevor Forbes said. “I would have loved for somebody on the Board of Health to invite Harrington and Doherty to come out to Housatonic to drink some of our brown water just to see whether they feel that they believe it when they say that the water is perfectly safe. I would like for the Board of Health to actually give us some recommendations. For example, our daughter is about to give birth to a newborn baby. Should she be bathing the baby in Housatonic Water?”

“There are lots of unhappy customers over here,” resident Anni Crofut said. “I was disappointed with the Board of Health. The tone of your questions felt very passive to me. I didn’t feel the assertive pressure that needs to be put on the agency.”

Crofut asked if customers would be responsible to fund any upgrades to HWW’s water system, or if the state would have any grants to help fund any upgrades. “The [MassDEP representatives] said there are grants, but in the next breath they said that there are no specific grants available for the situation,” Crofut said. “Are we supposed to continue to wait for HWW to seek out funds and then move towards extensive upgrades voluntarily? Despite their decades of inaction and the fact that they’re carrying debt and operating at a loss and the looming prospect of rate increases, which are going to fall on us as customers?”

“It is not surprising to me that the DEP sticks to their regulatory purview and doesn’t want to talk about anything financial, that is just bureaucracy 101,” Lanoue said in response. “Totally expected. I don’t know the answer to your question, but I know our town is looking at many avenues of trying to rectify the water situation. As for our tenor towards the MassDEP officials, I think, for me, my objective tonight was not to argue with them or to hold their feet to the fire. I don’t think that’s the point of this initial conversation with them. We wanted to be as respectful to them as we could so that we can continue to have them at least show up at our meetings.”

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