Amherst pays $7,500 fine, makes $6,000 in improvements to water treatment plants addressing problems raised by state

AMHERST — Amherst is paying a $7,500 fine and making $6,000 in equipment upgrades to its two water treatment plants following a consent order recently signed by town officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Interim Town Manager David Ziomek said Tuesday that the agreement between the town and DEP brings to a close two issues raised by the state agency over the last three years during its assessment of how Amherst distributes and tests the water supplied to homes, businesses, the University of Massachusetts and two private college campuses.

But Ziomek said these issues never diminished what he calls Amherst’s “excellent water supply.”

“At no time during this process was our water supply compromised in any way,” Ziomek said.

According to Ziomek, the first concern raised by DEP was how the town monitors the turbidity of the water that is distributed from the Atkins treatment plant in the Cushman section of Amherst, and the Centennial treatment plant in Pelham. Turbidity is an indication of how cloudy or hazy the water appears to the naked eye, based on the particles that it contains.

“We needed to upgrade the equipment to record the turbidity,” Ziomek said. “We had been doing that by hand, and that was not satisfactory to the DEP.”

DEP raised the issue with how turbidity was being recorded in 2013 and it persisted into early 2015.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring told the Select Board on Jan. 11 that the town’s water fund would be used to purchase and install $3,000 digital meters to measure turbidity at both plants, replacing the hand-collected chart meters the department has used.

The second issue of concern to the DEP was whether the town was doing enough to test the thousands of so-called backflow connections that exist throughout Amherst, Ziomek said. These are designed to prevent what is called cross-contamination that might happen if water that enters a building gets back into the water supply and compromises otherwise drinkable water.

The town had been testing backflow connections every eight to nine months, not every six months as the DEP requires.

DPW employees are also getting new training in monitoring those connections.

Mooring and Assistant DPW Superintendent Amy Rusiecki have communicated with the DEP since May and Mooring said he was resigned to signing the order. “We feel this is the best solution we can get and continue to move along and work with DEP,” Mooring said.

Catherine Skiba, spokeswoman for the DEP Springfield office, confirmed that the order, with penalty, was signed by the town Jan. 12 and by the DEP on Friday.

Ziomek said that Amherst meets all water standards set by state and federal laws. “The feeling is Amherst does a very good job and has an excellent relationship with the DEP,” Ziomek said.

“I think we’re very confident in the water we’re supplying to all of our users in town,” he added.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.