Troubled waters: Concerns over water quality in Dartmouth

Nov 17, 2020

Residents are expressing concern with water quality in Dartmouth as a project to change the town’s water treatment has been set back by staffing issues at the Department of Public Works.

The plan — switching from chlorine to chloramine treatments at Dartmouth’s three main water facilities in order to reduce chemicals in the water — has been in the works for years, and was expected to wrap up last spring.

But with two key water department staffers gone, DPW director Dave Hickox said that the change will likely be completed early next year instead.

The conversion process began in June 2019.

Last November, Dartmouth borrowed nearly $1.3 million from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust for an aeration system and other improvements in order to reduce levels of trihalomethanes (TTHMs) — a byproduct of chlorine disinfectants — in the water.

In 2017, June Town Meeting approved a budget of $1.5 million to address the water issue. 

The funds were earmarked for a project to switch disinfectants from chlorine to chloramines, which don’t form the same byproducts, according to Hickox.

TTHMs and haloacetic acids have been found in the town’s water supply in levels just above state standards intermittently since 2013, with the latest violation notification sent earlier this year.

Over many years, drinking high levels of TTHMs may result in liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems, or an increased risk of cancer.

“I've lived in the same house [near Crapo Field] most of my life,” stated resident Jesse Picanso, who added that for the last six years he’s bought bottled water to drink and cook with. “Growing up all the neighborhood kids would drink from hoses when playing outside…The water growing up never turned soapy looking, it never smelled like the YMCA pool.”

“We never received mail about how our water may give you cancer,” he added.

Longtime resident Carole Hart agreed. 

“I remember when Dartmouth’s water tasted really refreshing and didn’t feel we had any concerns about getting sick from it,” she stated. “Then every so often I started noticing the water would be a little yellow, and also the taste was not the refreshing taste it used to be.”

Since then, she said, it’s only gotten worse. “The other morning I was washing my face and hands and there was an overwhelming smell of chlorine,” she noted. “The smell was so strong it smelled like pool chlorine tablets.”

Hart — who has an autoimmune disease — described how she became concerned for her health after her family received notification letters from the town about the chemicals in the water.

“I spoke with my rheumatologist and he told me to not drink the water,” she noted. “ So not only are we paying for water for our home, but also have to purchase eight [five-gallon jugs] of spring water a month so that my family and our pets can have safe water to drink.”

Picanso also complained of the costs involved.

“Regular filters don't work, and the ones that do are thousands of dollars,” he noted. “And bottle water is expensive and fills my recycling bins so fast.”

New Bedford has already changed its water supply disinfectant to chloramine.

Hickox has previously stressed that the water is safe to drink, and that residents do not need to boil or otherwise purify it.

All the physical work has been completed at the three water treatment facilities and we’re awaiting some final inspections from the state,” he noted.

“Unfortunately we’ve had a couple of setbacks with personnel, so as a result we’re working with reduced staffing,” he said. “We want to have full staffing in place when we make that change.”

Hickox said that the water department is currently down its chief operator. Former chief operator Peter Andrade left the position to become Fire Chief for District 1 last November.

Another water department employee, Kevin Nunes, was arrested and charged for an alleged rape in January. He is due back in court on Nov. 23.

The DPW director himself will be leaving the department at the end of the year after more than 33 years working for the town.