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Tri-Town water district gets back to normal after breaks in water main

ADDISON — As things returned to normal last week for the Tri-Town Water District and its customers in Addison, Bridport and Shoreham, district officials continued to plan on how better to respond to emergency situations like those that led to the district’s Dec. 18 boil-water order, while state officials prepared to inspect the district plant and evaluate Tri-Town’s response.
Between Dec. 15 and 19 Tri-Town suffered two water main breaks, a car crash that knocked out power to the district plant on Tri-Town Road in Addison, the failure of the plant’s backup power system and an electrical fire there, and a fire at an Orwell orchard that drained a main water tank in Shoreham at the same time as the first water leak.
As a result, about 1,600 Tri-Town customers were at least temporarily without water, some customers got discolored water because groundwater and probably some wet soil entered Tri-Town’s depressurized pipes, and — because of the likelihood of contamination from that infiltration — on Dec. 19 the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Drinking & Groundwater Protection Division insisted Tri-Town issue a boil order for drinking and cooking water.
That order was lifted on Dec. 23 after Tri-Town’s water passed two tests during the week.
Tri-Town Water District Board Chairman Darwin Pratt said operations are now normal, although the plant’s electrical system still awaits a full repair, and he and district employees are planning on ways to improve customer notification, something all say could have gone more smoothly.
“I feel comfortable,” Pratt said. “All our tests are good, and we’re working on a way to get the word out.”
Drinking & Groundwater Protection Division Deputy Director Ellen Parr Doering said the division would be sending out a two-person team on this Tuesday to inspect the plant and meet with Tri-Town officials to discuss further their response to that series of unfortunate events.
“We’re mostly looking to see that things are back in normal operating mode,” Parr Doering said. “We’re also going to be asking questions about what happened and drilling down in more detail than we’ve gotten so far. Part of coming off boiled water was asking them to give us a whole outline of what happened and when and what their responses were.”
The division does not plan to punish Tri-Town for late notification, in part because the division has determined that Tri-Town’s state operating permit does not specify how or when it should let the state or its customers know about an emergency — nor does any other Vermont water district’s permit, Parr Doering said.
“People ask me, can you say it’s a violation of the permit that they didn’t notify you right away. And so I looked at that permit again. And the permits that we have are peppered with if you exceed the MCL (maximum contaminant level), you need to let us know. If you exceed the turbidity levels, you need to let us know, like right away, within 24 hours. If you change out a source, you need to let us know,” she said.
“But there wasn’t anything in the permit that said if your operations aren’t normal, you need to notify us right away. And that sort of got my attention.”
Parr-Doering said water quality officials are now studying how to address the issue in permits statewide.
“Now we’re working on language in our permits that makes that clear for everybody, not just this particular system,” she said. “We don’t want to hear about every little blip. We want to hear about the things that count when it comes to risk to public health.”
In the future, events like those in Tri-Town would trigger notification: Parr Doering said without pressure in pipes, such as when pipes break twice in already stressed system, problems occur.
“We asked them to issue the boil order because the likelihood was extremely high, if not actually present, that there was depressurization. And whenever there’s depressurization of pipes you have the potential for contamination to get into the pipes,” she said.
As far as the two issues of notification and communication, Pratt said the situation was at that time unique for Tri-Town, and the timing posed an issue. And by the time the extent of the problem became evident, it was late on a Friday. 
“By that time all the agencies were shut down, and I had nobody to call,” Pratt said. “Now that I’ve had this problem, I’ll find out what the number to call is.”
When the issues were occurring and the boil order had to be issued, Tri-Town officials notified TV and radio stations and tried to get out word to customers through the town clerk’s office. By Tuesday, the Independent also had information on its website, and district officials remained in touch with the Independent to get out the word on the paper’s website as quickly as possible when the order was lifted.
“I really think we’ve done everything we could do under the circumstances,” Pratt said.
Now, the district is preparing a mailing to solicit all customers’ telephone numbers and emails to better notify them in case of future emergencies. Pratt said a meeting is also set with Salisbury’s Business Telephone Systems to talk about how best to reach customers via phone, including possibly using the same technology school systems do to warn of snow days.
The mass mailing will include a stamped envelope to make it free and easy for customers to reply, Pratt said, so that “everyone will send it back, hopefully.” He said this past Thursday he expects that mailing to go out early this week.
On one point, Parr Doering and Pratt already agree: Those were a rough few days for Tri-Town.
“It was a perfect story of nastiness. It was very unfortunate,” Parr Doering said. “It was a struggle for the system, I’m quite sure.”
Pratt could only laugh when asked what he would do if he had to oversee something like that again. 
“If I do I’m going to be resigning for what I get paid,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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