The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection says North Adams failed to properly maintain the level of pH required in its water supply for three years.
Soda ash is a powder, kind of like baking soda, that is used in municipal water supplies to keep pH just above a safe, neutral state of 7. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14, from most acidic to most basic.
When the pH level dips below 7, it becomes acidic and can increase corrosion in pipes. That could to lead to a higher concentration of lead or copper in the water supply.
That happened on 171 days from January 2014 to July 2017, according to a letter sent to city residents in the first week of October by the North Adams Department of Public Services.
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright says this is not an emergency.
“The water is very safe and compliant,” Alcombright says.
But in an era when many communities nearby are grappling with contaminated water, the notice raised concern among residents, like Aaron Crandel.
“It’s anybody’s guess,” Crandel says. “You know, there have been a lot of questions in regards to the water in North Adams.”
Hoosick Falls, New York and Bennington and Pownal, Vermont have been dealing with serious PFOA contamination.
Alcombright says North Adams’ issues are nothing of the sort.
“We are very satisfied with the quality of our drinking water here in the city of North Adams,” Alcombright says. “This is not similar – in my mind, this is nothing like what they have encountered in certain parts of New York state. In this particular case, this is not about polluted water tap.”
Within the last year, North Adams has been at the center of three water-related problems. Elevated lead and copper levels were found in city schools in December.
“The city had told us at a city council meeting on July 27th of this year that it cleared up, it had done everything, it had remediated everything it had to do to get the water under control,” Crandel says.
North Adams was cited by the state Department of Environmental Protection in August for not assessing and submitting an on-time review of three water samples that tested positive for coliform bacteria, which could, but did not, indicate harmful disease-causing pathogens in the water.
“You know, the residents weren’t really given any real explanation about the letter,” Crandel says.
Alcombright says any procedural errors North Adams has been cited for do not reflect his administration’s work to ensure the safety of the city’s drinking water.
“Testing is done daily, the monitoring is done daily, the product of the plant is done daily,” Alcombright says.
In August, North Adams approved the borrowing of nearly $784,000 to upgrade the city’s water facility, to review the Mount Williams and Notch reservoir dams, and update the water treatment facility’s computer system.
Alcombright told WAMC the project will cost $1.1 million in debt, including interest, and will be paid off by 2020.
“In August, upon notification, we resumed use of soda ash treatment as directed, and agreed to keep our pH at the mandated level of 7.0 to 7.6,” Alcombright says. “The water is safe and compliant.”
To remediate the possible damage of acidic levels, the city has hired a consultant to conduct a report on its corrosion control system, which is to be completed before January.