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Concerns over water quality in Great Barrington spark frustration with Housing Authority

Drinking water
Nancy Eve Cohen
A glass of tap water.

The Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Housing Authority Board voted last week to ask the Housatonic Water Works Company if it will reimburse tenants for bottled water and doctors visits. The state has raised a red flag about drinking water at a housing complex for the elderly and families.

Haloacetic acid, or HAA5, is a byproduct of chlorinating water. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection found concentrations above the highest level allowed in drinking water for Flag Rock Village during the last two quarters last year. More recent sampling showed levels that were also too high in the first quarter of this year.

The DEP found the company out of compliance in part for not notifying customers.

The company did send a notice to the Housing Authority saying it's not an emergency but people who are elderly, pregnant, have an infant or are immune-compromised "may be at increased risk."

Marlene Kolowski, president of the local tenants organization, posted copies of the notice in a community room used by elderly tenants.

"I then went door to door to the family units and told them about it personally," Kolowski sai. "And then when the staff came in on Monday morning to the office, they tore all my signs down. And I put them right back up again."

The executive director of the Housing Authority Board did not return requests for an interview. Nor did the water company, whose treasurer, James Mercer, is chair of the housing board. Mercer recused himself from the discussion, including when member John Grogan proposed notifying former tenants.

"[They] had been exposed to the potentially carcinogenic water, but moved out before the notice came out," Grogan said. "The vote never happened."

Because, he said, it was clear it wouldn't pass.

UMass research professor David Reckhow said it's becoming more common for public water supplies in central and western Massachusetts to have elevated levels of HAA5. He said the intensity and frequency of rain storms in the region are washing nutrients from soil into water. That increases organic matter in watersheds, which can boost HAA5 levels.

"It's especially of concern for people who drink chlorinated water with high levels of has over a lifetime. So it's a chronic concern, not an acute one," Reckhow said.

Long-term exposure increases the risk of cancer. In Great Barrington, haloacetic acid was not elevated in 2020 or in the first half of 2021.

State regulators said Housatonic Water Works has until next Monday to submit a proposal for coming into compliance.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Previously she served as the editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaborative of public radio stations. Earlier in her career she was the Midwest editor for NPR in Washington, D.C. Before working in radio, she recorded sound as part of a camera crew for network television news, with assignments in Russia, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and in Sarajevo during the war in 1992.
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