Water plant progresses as woes persist
The Milford Water Co. is nearly finished designing an $18 million water treatment plant that must be built within the next 19 months under a consent order with the state.
But water problems continue in Milford, where the 130-year-old company has been heavily chlorinating drinking water drawn from the Charles River and other sources to prevent bacteria contamination.
All that chlorine has triggered elevated levels of total trihalomethanes, which are caused by chlorine reacting to organic material in the water, since the beginning of the year. Prolonged exposure to the TTHMs can cause health problems, including cancer, according to officials.
“It has been an ongoing issue in Milford,’’ said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Edmund Coletta, whose agency has been monitoring Milford Water more closely than any other water system in Massachusetts since 2009.
The elevated TTHM levels have led to even greater state scrutiny of the company, as well as efforts by the company and its customers to deal with the potential hazard.
The order requiring the new plant by May 31, 2013, grew out of an August 2009 episode in which customers had to boil their water for two weeks to kill E. coli bacteria.
Milford Water’s general manager, David Condrey, said the company is awaiting final approvals on the design from the state environmental agency before putting the project out to bid. “We hope to start construction by spring,’’ he said.
The new plant would eliminate the TTHM problem but that solution is over a year away.
Drinking water standards allow for TTHM levels of 80 parts per billion but tap water across Milford has tested above that level - higher than 200 parts per billion in some homes - since last January.
At first, Milford Water tried flushing its water mains to reduce the TTHM levels but that proved ineffective, Condrey said.
So last week Milford Water completed the installation of its first granulated activated carbon filter to remove more organic material from the lake and river water before it enters the Dilla Street treatment plant. The first filter needs to be flushed out and tested before a second filter goes in, Condrey said.
The Department of Environmental Protection is monitoring the situation, Coletta said.
Most public water systems submit quarterly test results to the agency but the state has required Milford Water to test more frequently and sends inspectors to the facility every other month, Coletta said.
Coletta said state environmental officials pushed the company to install the carbon filters.
“That is a temporary fix until the new plant comes on in 2013 - that would deal with the TTHM issue at that point,’’ Coletta said.
But not everyone in Milford is content to wait for the water to clear up.
Milford Public Schools, reacting to concerns from parents, recently shut off its bubblers and Milford Water agreed to provide the schools with bottled water dispensers until tests show the water is in compliance with state and federal environmental standards.
Several families have spent thousands of dollars installing filtration systems in their homes, while Milford Water has agreed to credit customers’ accounts for installing much smaller faucet-mounted filters in their kitchens and on shower heads.
Colleen and Mike Annantuonio already had installed a water filtration system in their kitchen when they received yet another letter from Milford Water about elevated levels of TTHMs in August. That letter mentioned something the young couple with three children, including a newborn, had not known: TTHMs are more dangerous when inhaled through steam coming out of showers and dishwashers than when ingested.
“When I was pregnant, we got a letter saying pregnant women should take precautions, so we put a filter on the tap,’’ said Colleen, a 30-year-old Milford native. “Then we get the other letter saying the fumes are the biggest problem. It’s inhaling when you are showering, washing dishes, or doing laundry.’’
“We had been living in this bubble with a false sense of security. We had been bathing our baby in that water, brushing our teeth, swimming all summer in the pool,’’ Annantuonio said. “What a mess.’’
Annantuonio and her friend, fellow nurse Lisa Vasile, last month took their concerns public, organizing a Sept. 29 community meeting that drew about 100 residents looking for answers and venting about discolored water that smells like a swimming pool and stains tiles, sinks, and bathtubs.
Vasile said she had her water tested and found elevated levels of iron and manganese and can’t help but wonder what lasting effect they will have on their health. Manganese is a known neurotoxin when inhaled in prolonged doses.
“Who is going to protect us when there are all these autoimmune problems all around town 10 or 15 years down the road? That is when it is going to happen, it’s not immediate,’’ said Vasile, who has reached out to elected officials and spoken with water company officials repeatedly. “I am not a whistleblower. This is about education. Fix this and help us.’’
Condrey acknowledges the public relations battle has been brutal. There have been angry town meetings. A Facebook page called “Stand Up to Milford Water Company’’ has drawn hundreds of postings since it went up in July. The Web page www.milfordwatercompany.com touts itself as the “unauthorized look at our water.’’
Moreover, a former manager of Milford Water has been indicted on charges he allegedly tampered with water samples during the boil-water debacle in 2009.
According to the state attorney general’s office, Henry Papuga had been under so much pressure to get the boil-water order lifted, he allegedly added chlorine to six water samples before submitting them for testing.
The chlorine turned the water samples black under lab testing, triggering an investigation that led to Papuga’s indictment by a Worcester County grand jury last month on six counts of tampering with an environmental monitoring device and two counts of making false statements.
“On a PR basis, no, it doesn’t help,’’ Condrey said before declining further comment on the charges against his former boss.
Condrey said the company is trying to focus on the future.
The new diffused air filtration plant, when operational, will take water from the town’s wells, theCharles River, and Echo Lake, pretreat it with a coagulant that combines with contaminants like iron, manganese, and troublesome organics, and turn them into larger particles that can be filtered out as the water runs across an aeration field of bubbles. The particles float to the surface in a foam that can be skimmed off before the water hits the next filters and an elaborate disinfecting chamber, Condrey said.
The state-of-the-art plant will also be expandable to handle future demands of new regulations.
But the delivery system carrying Milford water is more than a century old and needs constant work.
Last week, a crew began replacing a 100-year-old main under the Charles River that was in need of a complicated repair all year. The new pipe is larger, made of plastic and is flexible, Condrey said. Replacement pipes being used elsewhere in the system are lined with cement to make flushing easier. The end result will be cleaner drinking water, he said.
Still, Annantuonio and Vasile both have recently installed more elaborate filters on the water mains to their homes and doubt they will be reimbursed by the company. The difference in water quality, they said, is like “night and day.’’
They hope Milford Water’s plans succeed in cleaning up the water piped into every home and business in town.
Until then they worry about Milford water outside their well-filtered systems.
“It’s scary,’’ Annantuonio said. “It’s one big ugly mess.’’