By Richard Gaines
---- — Netting the city $150,000, Gloucester and the private company that had the contract to manage the municipal water system at the time of the 20-day, 2009 state-mandated boil-water order have reached an out-of-court settlement of cross litigation stemming from the anxiety and anger provoked by that public health emergency.
In addition to the cash settlement with United Water Environment Services Inc., the contractor agreed to release Gloucester from claims of $337,398.83 for direct expenses incurred by United Water, as it was then known, for direct expenses incurred in their response to the 20-day “boil water” saga, triggered when bacteria indicative of impure water were found and the city’s water system kept failing daily tests monitored by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“The total settlement is valued at $487,398.83 for the city of Gloucester,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk wrote in a memo to the City council, announcing the “mediated settlement.” The settlement was signed March 14.
The troubles began in mid-August 2009 when traces of coliform bacteria were found in multiple samples taken from the water system, then centered at the Babson Water Treatment Plant below the Babson Reservoir on the island.
Coliform itself represented no health risk, but its presence has come to indicate potentially unhealthy conditions. The cause of the presence of the indicative bacteria were difficult to pinpoint, and led to the extended boil water order, and an extended crisis response by United Water, which flew in experts to try to pinpoint the problem..
In briefing the City Council on the settlement, Kirk said, “The silver lining for the city is that since the boil order we have invested $35 million in the water system, and stimulated economic development as a result.”
“Gorton’s, which suffered businesses losses during the boil order, has renewed confidence in the city as evidenced by their recent $20 million expansion in their plant on Gloucester Harbor,” Kirk added. “National Fish, whose business was also disrupted, recently made a $2 million investment in their facility.”
Located on Parker Street, next to the Jodrey Fish Pier, National Fish is a major frozen seafood manufacturer and wholesale seafood products supplier.
It was in late summer 2009 that the state’s DEP found in the aged water system two specific problems that created the crisis: an unexpected surge of “raw” water from the reservoir into the system on Aug. 15, and — at the same time — levels of chlorine disinfectant in the system testing at figures that were dangerously low.
The surge of raw water into the system, from an “equipment malfunction” flushed sediment into the plant’s water filters “fouling the filter media and sending highly (murky) water into the distribution system,” DEP wrote.
As the city had been aware for years, the mechanical paddles that are supposed to clear sediment out of the water tanks were not working. When that murky water started entering the system, the chlorine that is supposed to stop it from growing bacteria was low because, as Public Works Director Michael Hale has said, the city had been trying to get below disinfectant limits.
The state also identified the particular bacteria that started growing in parts of the system: “serratia marcescens,” a persistent opportunistic human pathogen which, at sufficient levels, can cause urinary and respiratory infections,” although no documented cases of illness from the fouling of the water system were recorded.
“After years of neglect, the city is now in a very difficult position of having to pay for, repair and rebuild the Babson drinking water treatment facility to ensure that the city’s drinking water needs are met next summer, while at the same time rebuilding the sewage treatment plant,” DEP’s Richard Chalpin said that December, after the crisis had passed and the water system had been stabilized.
“In order to accomplish this goal,” he added, “the city is going to have to reinvent the way it manages and supervises these projects, as well as the day-to-day operations of its essential public works systems.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.