The state has ordered Gloucester to pay $15,000 for clean water violations during this summer’s drinking water crisis, with another $67,000 in potential penalties if the city does not adequately fix the Babson water treatment plant, pictured in December 2008.

The state has ordered Gloucester to pay $15,000 for clean water violations during this summer's drinking water crisis, with another $67,000 in potential penalties if the city does not adequately fix the Babson drinking water treatment plant.

City officials "failed to recognize the severity of the bacteria problem" that led to a 20-day boil order starting at end of August, the state Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a summary released yesterday of orders handed down to the city.

In their first report on what went wrong this summer, DEP experts cited "years of neglect" of the systems at Babson combined with "lax oversight" by the city of its private water contractor as central causes of persistent bacteria blooms.

The state is requiring $8 million in work at Babson before the plant can be used again this summer.

The work, most of which the city has already been planning for months, includes switching from a chlorine disinfection process to chloramine disinfection, which involves both chlorine and ammonia.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk has attributed many of the problems to the performance of the city's private water contractor at the time, United Water, and poor communication between the state, city, and the contractor.

The state noted that, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 16, "over 25 percent of the bacteria samples" exceeded allowable coliform bacteria levels, but little action was taken.

"In a lot of cases they were referring to United Water," Kirk said. The test results "were going directly to United Water."

Two specific problems, DEP writes, took the already vulnerable and ill-managed water system into crisis this summer: an unexpected surge of "raw" water from the reservoir into the system on Aug. 15 at the same time levels of chlorine disinfectant in the system 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 yesterday 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."

Serratia marcescens is naturally occurring in the environment, and is commonly experienced as pink scum in bathroom grout.

Having known the gravity of the problems facing the water system for months, the Kirk administration has already planned $8.18 million in drinking water improvements of which City Council approved $6 million in borrowing for this week.

That work includes fixing, at Babson, the raw water intake system, sediment tanks, filters, chemical treatment system and disinfectant system.

It will also pay for work on the Plum Cove storage tank in Lanesville and the re-engineering of the tunnel under the Blynman Canal that carries water and gas between the island and mainland.

Fears of a water main failure in the 45-foot deep tunnel, which could leave all of Gloucester east of the Annisquam without water or gas, have been a fear of city officials for years.

The cost of the work will be paid back by water ratepayers, who, according to City Treasurer Jeffrey Towne, can expect an extra $1.31 per thousand gallons on their water bills by 2012.

And that spending is only designed to get the city through the next year. In the long term, the city is looking at $18 million in pipe replacement projects and $40 million for a modern drinking water treatment plant to replace Babson and the West Gloucester plants.

"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," said DEPs Richard Chalpin of in a statement yesterday.

"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."

Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or via e-mail at panderson@gloucestertimes.com

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