Gloucester’s water problems persist

EPA steps in to offer advice

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2009

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As orders to boil city water hit the two-week mark in Gloucester yesterday, the federal government took notice.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk led an Environmental Protection Agency scientist on a tour of the city’s water system, four days after tests showed the second-highest finding of bacteria since the crisis began Aug. 22, officials said.

Tests since the problem was discovered show that the levels of coliform bacteria had been decreasing until they spiked Monday. On Tuesday, levels decreased again, but generally remained higher than last week’s readings. The bacteria can cause diarrhea and indicate the presence of other, more harmful germs.

Gloucester water has still been found to be free of E. coli or fecal matter, said Deputy Fire Chief Miles Schlichte, city spokesman on the water emergency.

But with the state requirement of two consecutive days of coliform-free tests to halt the boiling order, it appears unlikely that relief will come for Gloucester residents over the Labor Day weekend.

“We seem to be making some progress,’’ Schlichte said. “This weekend, all hands are on deck. We’ll continue testing everyday. We’ll continue, hopefully, making progress.’’

Even with two clean sets of tests, the state Department of Environmental Protection has reserved its right to maintain boiling orders, he said.

This week has brought several developments, including two information sessions on the topic; a second, more thorough cleaning of the city’s main water plant; and EPA involvement.

After the city’s first meeting on Monday, which addressed the problem with residents, the Babson water treatment plant was shut down for a full cleaning, including a chlorine power wash. The plant reopened Tuesday, clean and fully operational.

Babson, one of the city’s three treatment plants, has been the only one affected by the contamination. Of the other two, one is closed for long-term maintenance, and one meets less than a third of the city’s water needs.

Yesterday, the city held its second information session, this time with the city’s largest water consumers, such as ice makers and fish-processing plants, many of which have been trucking water in, Schlichte said.

After the meeting, Kirk met with EPA scientist Kevin Reilly, a drinking water specialist. But the federal agency, which has lent its Chelmsford laboratory for analysis of water samples, said it will solely serve as an adviser for now.

“We’re not playing a large role at this point,’’ said David Deegan, EPA spokesman. “We’ll provide technical assistance, advice.’’

Among other steps, the city is releasing chlorine into the water supply to kill the bacteria, Schlichte said.

Hopes are high that the steps will work, allowing residents to drink finally from their own faucets, he said. Until then, daily tests will continue.