GREAT BARRINGTON — Health officials are concerned about the effects drinking Housaton water can have on the young, the old and the sick. They plan to push the Select Board to do something about it.
Residents told Board of Health members they were about to take their complaints to the next level.
“We’re really angry and we’re going to really freak out and stage a protest and it’s not going to be a pretty picture,” resident Denise Forbes told health officials at their meeting last week. “So we need as much help as we can before things get really ugly.”
Board members urged nonviolence but said they understood. They said they will draft a letter to ask the Select Board to come up with a plan that would likely include buying and distributing bottled water to Housatonic Water Works Co. customers.
One resident noted that officials have so far not said they will direct more than $2 million in pandemic relief money to the water problem. Board member-elect Eric Gabriel had suggested the city do so.
But federal rules don’t allow the money to be spent that way, according to City Manager Mark Pruchenski. He later told The Eagle that the city was working on another source of revenue and suggested it would work out.
Calling water a “public health threat,” Dr. Ruby Chang, a physician and member of the Board of Health, said she was concerned that older people were not getting enough water or clean water. She would like the board to take a position on the potential health risks.
“We also have to write in the letter that the city should propose some temporary remedial measures while they discuss in camera,” Chang said. “We need to … do our part for public health … and get the Select Board to do more than just discuss.”
Chang is referring to the Board of Selectmen’s near-monthly Executive Board sessions to guide the eventual purchase of the water line. The water company is struggling to remove excessive manganese, levels of which rise during hot weather and turn the water shades ranging from tea to coffee.
This summer, residents were more concerned than usual about ruined laundry and dark tap water.
Some have stopped paying their bills in protest.
The company is testing a filtration system that it will install if it proves successful in removing manganese.
That’s not the only concern. Tests last year found elevated levels of a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer, though they have since fallen to levels that meet the regulator’s approval.
Waterworks treasurer and co-owner James Mercer previously said record rainfall in July 2021 caused a spike in haloacetic acid levels. Historically, levels have been below the threshold set by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Resident Hilary Rush told the board of health there needs to be a way for the city to provide bottled water to low-income Housatonic residents.
Michelle Luber outlined the city’s plans to use pandemic relief money made available through the American Recovery Plan Act.
“Not one red cent went to this issue,” she said, calling the issue difficult for both old and young. “These are people who have babies who can’t even bathe in this water,” she said.
Lubert scolded “the best small town in the United States” for “not even helping to buy bottled water for its citizens.”
Board President Michael Lanu, responding to residents, said he feels their pain and wishes the board could do more.
He and Chang said they were told by city officials that there was no money in the treasury for bottled water or filters.
Earlier this year, the board sent a letter to Mercer asking if the company would pay for any solutions, such as bottled water and water filters. Mercer refused.
Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk said she doesn’t think a letter to the Select Board will do much good.
“It’s not even a Band-Aid,” she said. She also noted that there are water bottle refill stations outside of City Hall and the Mason Library.