NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — More than 80 water samples from across the city had no elevations of lead or copper.
The state Department of Environmental Protection had ordered the testing after it said the Water Department failed over three years to consistently use a soda ash additive to adjust the water's pH to prevent corrosion. The additive is designed to adjust the pH to 7 or higher
"We're very pleased," Mayor Richard Alcombright said on Thursday. "Whatever happened with the days when we didn't treat, it wouldn't appear to me that it had any sort of blowback."
Tests for copper and lead found them well below action levels; it did, however, turn up a sink at Brayton School that while still below action levels, stood out enough that it was determined to fix it.
The city received the administrative order on Aug. 29, five months after the DEP's sanitary inspection of the Water Treatment Plant found the soda ash treatment equipment taken apart for repairs. It further found the city had "discontinued regular use of its soda ash corrosion control chemical addition system."
Soda ash has been used in Massachusetts since the mid-1990s as a corrosion control.
A review of the reports between January 2014 and July 2017 found that there were 171 days when the pH of the city's drinking water had dropped below 7.0.
"Our lead and copper numbers have always been low," said Commissioner of Public Services Timothy Lescarbeau, who ran the treatment plant before the city took it over in 2010.
The city had been on a waiver when it was using Broad Brook, which was discontinued in the early 2000s. The brook had a naturally low pH factor.
"The main purpose of the soda ash being used here was pH control, but different times of the year, we don't need it," Lescarbeau said. "So when we got this notification from the DEP, that was a surprise to me. I didn't agree with it then and a I still don't agree with it."
He said the water is continuously monitored by a computerized system to detect pH and at no time did the pH drop below 6.8 or 6.7 during those 171 days. He took issue with the DEP's description of 7.0 to 7.5 as aesthetic numbers to match.
"There's not one book that I've ever read that said that was an aesthetic number," Lescarbeau said. "If it's below 6.5, that's when corrosion starts and above 8.5 is when you start depositing minerals."
He said he spoken to other operators and former DEP employees who were not aware of the 7.0 pH standard and that DEP has not shown him any documentation justifying the 7.0. DEP's website notes the 6.5 to 8.5 pH range and states there may be "system-specific values" for other programs.
The state has ordered the city to "continue its use of the soda ash treatment equipment to maintain the system's pH at a level above 7.0 at all time."
"The state clearly indicated to us is that it's 7 to 7.5," the mayor said. "If it goes below 7, that's when you need to treat so it doesn't get to 6.5 ... the bottom line is if they want 7-7.5 that's what we treat to."
It also was required to test at least 30 sites in October but the DEP did not approve a sampling plan in time and the testing was extended. In all, the city tested 60 sites (the total required) plus more than 20 at the request of homeowners.
The locations had to be tier one, or structures most likely to have lead pipes or possibility of contamination. Those are homes largely pre-1980s and larger facilities such as schools. The action level for lead is .0150 and copper is 1.30. The tests are done by Micro Labs and sent directly to the DEP.
The city is also required to develop a corrosion control plan, which Lescarbeau is working on.
"We just want to reassure people we fixed what's supposed to be fixed, we're in compliance to this point with the consent order our testing has been done and it appears all is well," the mayor said.
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