, Gloucester, MA

August 22, 2009

Boil your water

State issues order after traces of bacteria found again in Gloucester's system

By Patrick Anderson

Gloucester was placed under an indefinite order to boil all municipal drinking water yesterday by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection after traces of coliform bacteria were found for the second time this week in the water supply.

Residents are required to boil tap water for one minute before consuming it directly or using it to cook, wash dishes, make ice or brush their teeth.

All water drawn in the last seven days — since last Saturday, Aug. 15 — and any ice, juice, formula and uncooked foods prepared with water taken from the system during that time period should be thrown out, according to the order.

Restaurants and food preparers must boil tap water for five minutes, the DEP order indicated.

Cape Pond Ice President Scott Memhard said last night that his company was bringing trailerloads of packaged ice into Gloucester today and tomorrow from ice companies outside of Gloucester, to continue to meet the needs and demands of local consumers, restaurants, and institutions with "safe ice products."

The boil order was triggered when samples of city drinking water taken either yesterday or Thursday tested positive for coliform bacteria — the second time this week there had been a positive test, Ed Coletta, spokesman for DEP, said yesterday afternoon.

Concern about the safety of Gloucester's drinking water supply has run high since a series of failures at the Babson water treatment plant began last weekend.

No traces of E. coli bacteria were found in the system, the city reported yesterday in a 4 p.m. news release that attributed the boil water order to low levels of chlorine, an anti-bacterial used in the system.

Throughout the week, Mayor Carolyn Kirk and city Public Health Director Jack Vondras had emphasized that the city's water was safe for drinking, while city crews worked to restore water reserves to their normal levels. As late as Thursday, a release from the mayor's office, aimed at updating residents on the status of the overall water system, indicated that, according to Vondras, "the public water supply continues to be safe to drink and is being regularly monitored to ensure health and human safety."

On Tuesday, however, Public Works Director Michael Hale said some traces of coliform had been detected in the parts of the system in West Gloucester furthest from the Babson plant, prompting more chlorine to be introduced into the system. That same day, Hale also acknowledged that a boil water requirement might have to be ordered by DEP because low water pressure in the system resulting from the failures could prevent sufficient amounts of chlorine from making it to the system's outlying areas.

Coletta said the procedure used in Gloucester followed standard practices: One bacteria hit leads to increased chlorine; a second positive, from the sample taken either Thursday or yesterday, results in stronger measures, such as the current boil water order.

For the boil order to be lifted, two successive samples of city water will need to test negative, Coletta said, something that he said would take at least until late in the day tomorrow. The statement issued yesterday by the mayor's office and Vondras indicated that Public Works employees will be working "around the clock" to test and try to fix the problem.

Problems at the Babson plant first turned up early last Saturday, when workers reported that water in the sediment separation tanks at the beginning of the treatment process were murky and contained an unacceptable amount of suspended solids.

That failure led the city to shut off the flow of new water entering the system, and over the weekend water users drew down clean reserves to precariously low levels. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the city's West Gloucester plant is already out of commission due a scheduled $3.5 million maintenance project that has kept it offline throughout the summer, and will carry beyond Labor Day, city officials say.

During the boil water order, the city's outdoor water ban remains in effect. That means residents are banned from using city water to wash their cars, water lawns and gardens, or fill their pools, among other uses. Residents caught violating that order face fines of $50 for a first offense, of $100 for any subsequent offenses.

A number of major businesses and institutions have worked with the city to cut back high-level water consumption throughout the week.

Cape Pond Ice's Memhard that all packaged ice products and inventories at the company's local facilities were manufactured prior to the Aug. 15 "date of concern," and should be "safe and acceptable."

"Our business complied with the Gloucester mayor's office request to curtail water consumption," Memhard said, "and we have not produced any packaged ice inventory since Aug. 14."

Patrick Anderson can be reached at