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Tri-Town passes state muster: Water quality good, crisis mostly well handled

ADDISON — A Jan. 10 letter from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division gave the Tri-Town Water District good marks for water quality and its response to a mid-December crisis.
The letter — written by division System Operations Specialist Heather Collins, one of the state experts who came to inspect Tri-Town’s Addison plant and conduct water tests in Addison, Bridport and Shoreham — noted the challenges Tri-Town faced between Dec. 15 and 19 that led to a Dec. 19 order to boil drinking and cooking water.
“The Division recognizes that the water main break and subsequent power failure events were major emergencies for the Water System. The work of the operators in restoring service to the system does not go unnoticed,” Collins wrote.
She also noted, “The system met all compliance parameters pertaining to finished water turbidity and chlorine disinfection contact time during the distribution system water shortages, water treatment plant outage, and the subsequent days that the plant was back in active service.”
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 after an electrical fire there, and a fire at an Orwell orchard that forced firefighters to drain a few thousand gallons from Tri-Town’s main water tank in Shoreham at the same time as the first water leak.
As a result of all these factors, 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 — the Drinking Water & Groundwater Protection Division asked Tri-Town to issue the boil order.
That order was lifted on Dec. 23 after Tri-Town’s water passed tests. In early January it once again passed tests — specifically for “chlorine disinfection residual concentration”  — at six key locations around the system.
“Everything passed. They came down here and went through everything, and it was great,” said Tri-Town Water District Board Chairman Darwin Pratt.
According to Collins’ letter, testing “verified the chlorine disinfection residual concentration at these six locations contained free chlorine residual concentrations within acceptable limits.”
According to waterandhealth.org, the amount of chlorine residual in a water system “constitutes an important safeguard against the risk of subsequent microbial contamination after treatment … By monitoring the chlorine residual throughout a drinking water distribution system, water treatment operators can quickly identify points at which the residual declines or disappears. A sudden decline in the chlorine residual could indicate a leak in the drinking water distribution system.”
Pratt said Tri-Town water users should be confident in opening their taps.
“We’ve probably got the cleanest water any place in the state of Vermont right now. We’ve been through so many tests,” Pratt said. “So nobody should be worried.”
State officials also checked out the current status of Tri-Town’s Addison plant and its operation during the December crisis.
According to the letter, “The electrical fire that occurred at the Tri Town Water Plant occurred mid-morning Saturday Dec. 17, 2016. The damage at the plant was limited to the generator switching gear electrical control panel and did not spread to any other sections of or controls associated with the plant. This electrical fire did not result in excursions where unfiltered water or undisinfected water was provided to the system’s users.”
Pratt was pleased with the feedback.
“They were very impressed with how we run the plant. They were very impressed with our numbers,” he said.
Full repairs of the electrical system will be done soon, and Pratt said the system will be inspected during the process. State officials are recommending that after the backup generator failed during the fire that it be tested monthly.
The letter also made formal that Tri-Town and Vergennes-Panton district operators should have notified division officials of the emergency, and specifically that they activated a line between the two districts that allowed Vergennes-Panton water to be pumped to Tri-Town customers. The letter noted pager numbers would be made available to the districts for future after-hour crises such as December’s.
Pratt said state officials understood the issues on the ground.  
“I explained to them it was 5:30 on a Friday night, and I had no idea who to call,” Pratt said. “I got hold of them first thing Monday morning. They knew, and they were OK with it. They said given the circumstances and the timing and everything we did what we had to do.”
NOTIFYING WATER USERS
The final issue, one not unique to Tri-Town, is that of notification of water users during emergencies. Collins’ letter states, “The Water System reported that getting public notice to reach all consumers was the most challenging aspect of the events. On or before July 1, 2017, the Division requests the Water System revise its emergency response plan, update emergency contact numbers, and incorporate the use of VT-Alert.”
According to vtrural.org, Vermont Alert is a free service hosted and maintained by the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. It “allows the public to sign up for and receive notifications through a number of delivery systems such as text, e-mail, telephone, or game console. Users will create accounts, chose their local area, select what types of alerts they wish to receive, and identify which delivery system they wish to use to receive those notifications.”
Tri-Town has already begun collecting email addresses and phone numbers from its water users, a process Pratt said is going well. He was also set this week to meet with Tri-Town’s phone provider in hopes of getting its answering machines upgraded to allow officials to change outgoing messages remotely so that customers may call at any hour and get updated information during an emergency.
In an interview earlier this month, Drinking Water & Groundwater Protection Division Deputy Director Ellen Parr Doering said the division was evaluating operating permits for all the state’s water systems to address the notification issue.
Pratt said he has learned other districts do not have communication plans for the kind of unusual and unfortunate events that struck Tri-Town, after which the district contacted media outlets and used the Shoreham town email list.
“I’ve checked out other water departments. Nobody else has anything in place any more than we do,” he said. “To let everybody know is impossible. Not everybody listens to the news. A lot of people don’t have computers. You can get to as many people as you can, but I don’t think anyone can say you will hit everybody.”
There is one message Pratt wants to get out now that things at Tri-Town have settled down.
“I want to thank all our customers for putting up with all the inconvenience. And all of our guys worked around the clock for two days to get things up and going again. They just had so many things go wrong at the same time. We had our hands full,” Pratt said. “I want to thank our customers for their patience, and also I want to personally thank all our personnel for all the hours and hard work they put in.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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