State DEP issues ‘unilateral administrative order’ against Housatonic Water Works

Housatonic Water Works Co-owner Jim Mercer explained that there is no threat to public health. Nor does the unilateral administrative order from DEP state that there is such a threat.

Great Barrington —The embattled Housatonic Water Works, which is already the subject of complaints from customers about rust-colored water, has been ordered by state environmental officials to fix its chlorination system.

In issuing what it calls a “unilateral administrative order,” the state Department of Environmental Protection found the water system of the private company to be out of compliance with various regulations “and that immediate action is necessary to address that noncompliance.” \ 

Click here to read the nine-page order dated August 10. It addresses the subject of the discolored water but its factual emphasis and the target of the order itself are on HWW’s chlorination systems. 

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin broke the news at Monday’s selectboard meeting. Last week, town officials met with HWW co-owner Jim Mercer, as well as with DEP officials. 

A water filter filled with residue overnight in a Housatonic residence.

“The two meetings we had gave us a good picture of the situation,” Tabakin said. 

Michael J. Gorski, a regional director of the DEP’s western regional office in Springfield, said in the order that during the months of July and August of 2018, HWW customers “complained of extended periods of discolored waters and odors (‘pool-like’), followed by periods of ‘pond-like’ odors.” 

However, DEP collected bacteria samples on at least three occasions in different locations during those months and found the water to be “free of bacteria.” On August 9, two DEP engineers met with Mercer and reviewed HWW’s operations.

They found the water in Long Pond, which functions as HWW’s reservoir, to be quite warm at 84 degrees, though it typically cools about 20 degrees after treatment. Gorski said HWW “failed to maintain [its] chlorine analyser, specifically the analyser was not receiving consistent flow” and “was not providing accurate readings of water treatment operations.” The document orders HWW to rectify the chlorine analyzer problem within 72 hours and to conduct tests and make other repairs within 21 days.  

Failure to comply to comply with the order, Gorski said, “may result in legal action” or “fines and civil penalties of up to $25,000 and by imprisonment of up to one year for each day during which each violation covered by this order continues or is repeated.” HWW is entitled to an appeal.

HWW co-owner Jim Mercer at a DPU hearing in Housatonic to discuss rate increases. Photo: David Scribner

In an Edge interview, Mercer said, “We dispute the data in the preamble.” However, he added that the company has “no problem with the order” itself and it does not plan to appeal. He declined to elaborate on which details HWW takes issue with in the order.  

Key among the items in the order is the activation, pressure-testing and disinfection of a new line installed in 2017 as a result of negotiations with state regulators for a rate increase some two years earlier. At that time, some customers were complaining of a chlorine smell in the water.

That 800-foot line, which runs from the company’s chlorine basin to the top of its 1-million gallon storage tank, will increase the contact time of chlorine with the water and make the system “more homogenous,” Mercer explained.

“We have no problem with an order that we intended in first place,” Mercer said. “The order is telling us to activate it. If it was tied into something we couldn’t do, then we would have a dispute … We want to resolve this issue.”

Mercer emphasized that there is no threat to public health. Nor does the unilateral administrative order from DEP state that there is such a threat. Mercer said, contrary to popular belief, chlorination levels are not dictated by bacteria levels but by water flow and turbidity. The latter has the effect of protecting microorganisms against disinfection. 

One major problem that caused a disruption to the distribution system was a water main break last month on Grove Street. However, the DEP order estimated that the repair of the break improved efficiency and “resulted in a water usage reduction within the system of approximately 30 percent.”

“So nothing has changed about the safety of the water,” Selectman Ed Abrahams said. “But it’s nasty to look at.” 

Tabakin said water testing kits are available at the town health department. Information has been posted on the town website. Click here to see it. The water kits include bottles for testing for E. coli bacteria, lead and copper.

Water glass on left collected discolored water from a home in Housatonic; water glass on right from the same house when the water is filtered.

Click here to see an announcement from the Great Barrington Board of Health to residents concerned about water quality. Since the town does not regulate public or private water companies, there is a list of phone numbers and email addresses of state officials for residents to contact.

More extensive test can be done through the Tri-Town Health Department in Lee. The Tri Town tests gauge water samples for lead, nitrate, nitrite, sodium, sulfates, chloride, iron, manganese, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, and turbidity.  

As was noted above, HWW was granted a 30 percent rate increase two years ago, in part to fund upgrades, and has had some issues with water quality monitoring over the years.

As for the brownish water, Mercer said the problem is worse when water mains are flushed or otherwise disturbed by events such as hydrant use or line breaks. Mercer, whose family has owned the company since 1984, said resulting commotion in the lines causes the aging cast-iron pipes to shed and the iron flakes discolor the water.

This problem is made worse, he said, because the state Department of Environmental Protection has required the company to increase chlorine levels, which tends to add to the corrosion; so does warmer water and the increased usage associated with the summer months. 

HWW has worked to replace some of the company’s 16 miles of water mains, about 80 percent of which are over 100 years old. Some, Mercer said, are “original issues from 1888,” when the water company was founded to service the mills that had sprung up in the village. 

Housatonic Water Works hydrant at the Housatonic Fire Station.

Recent water main replacements include Grove, North and Wyantenuck streets last year, along with about 1,000 feet of line from the Park Street bridge to the Housatonic fire station. But there are many miles remaining that need upgrading.

As for further replacements, Mercer has said the state Department of Public Utilities rejected his plans because the resulting rate increase would have been unacceptable to state regulators. Consequently, there has been some talk of the town buying out HWW but nothing has been formally proposed.

HWW serves about 800 customers in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, as well as a small number in adjacent portions of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Water service for much of the rest of the town is provided not by a private company but by the Great Barrington Fire District, which functions as the town’s municipal water department.