Water commissioners seek answers to water discoloration issue; ‘Communication efforts were an abject failure’

June 27, 2024 By Carol Britton Meyer

During Wednesday afternoon’s meeting of the Weir River Water System water commissioners, the Hingham Select Board — acting as water commissioners —  listened to a review of the  discolored water issue that plagued many water users in Hull, Hingham, and North Cohasset for several days.

Although most of the discoloration has cleared up, water company officials continue to help individual residents who are still experiencing issues.

“Customer service received 700 calls in three hours,” WRWS Managing Director/Supt. Russell Tierney Tierney noted.

Hingham Select Board Chair Joseph Fisher apologized for what he called the “unacceptable” discoloration of the water, stating that the board as water commissioners “intends to get to the bottom of our and customers’ concerns.”

Because according to Open Meeting Law a meeting must be posted 48 hours in advance — not including weekends or holidays — Wednesday afternoon was the soonest the meeting could be held, Fisher explained. The water discoloration issue will also be discussed at the July 2 Select Board meeting.

Investigation ongoing
The recent events are still under investigation, according to Veolia Regional Vice President South Coast Region John Oatley, who named several possible contributing factors. Veolia is the water company operator.

These include the extreme heat leading to increased demand for water on June 19; the fact that many people were at home since it was a holiday — causing higher water usage — a localized break in a 76-year-old Leavitt Street water main between Main and Short streets in Hingham Centre; the need for additional system maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, to update the system with recent technology advancements, and much better communication, as well as other factors “unknown at this time.”

A Cohasset resident attending the meeting expressed appreciation to Hull Fire Chief Chris Russo for his continuous “play-by play” updates posted on the Hull Emergency Management Facebook page.

He and others who are among the 300 Cohasset residents served by WRWS found those posts to be very helpful.

Tierney, who oversees the WRWS contract with Veolia, said a 10-year capital plan is in place to make improvements to the system.

Christopher Halleron, Manager of Communications & Community Relations at Veolia, said he plans to work with WRWS officials to improve communications with customers.

In the meantime, water users interested in receiving updates need to opt-in on the WRWS website. That’s because for privacy reasons, water company officials can’t enter contact information into the notification system without customers’ permission.

Efforts are also underway to find a way to reach tenants whose landlords are WRWS customers.

Fire Chief Steve Murphy explained that while the use of a reverse 911 system through the county sheriff’s department was considered because Hingham doesn’t have its own, it doesn’t reach those without landlines who only use cell phones unless they have opted into the system.

Studying where the gaps occurred
“This was basically a 50-hour event,” Oatley said. “We’ll do everything we can to prevent this from happening again. We are studying where the gaps occurred.”

WRWS water is tested regularly, with Veoila working with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to ensure compliance with DEP standards. Updates will be available.

A flushing program is key to water quality, with a plan in place, according to Tierney. Some residents are asking for more information, however. “Water quality is a huge concern,” Select Board member Liz Klein said.

Hingham Select Board member William Ramsey asked what steps are in place now for when another heat wave occurs to prevent a recurrence. He also said he plans to email Veolia with more questions.

‘We now have a heightened awareness’
“I’m not going to say this will never happen again,” Oatley responded, while at the same time acknowledging that Veolia now has “a heightened awareness” moving forward — and in particular heading into Fourth of July week — and may add additional staff for the holiday.

“The discolored water can’t be attributed to one specific thing,” he said. “We don’t know just yet. It’s still under investigation.”

Steve Weiss, chair of the WRWS citizen advisory board representing Hingham said that while 50 hours to remove most of the discolored water “sounds logical on a technical level, [this incident] was catastrophic on a personal level. Communication [efforts were] an abject failure. This was a full-town emergency, and many residents had no idea what was going on.”

Weiss noted that members of the Commission on Disabilities provided assistance on their own to some of the town’s most vulnerable residents because they heard of the need “but were not formally asked to do so. I’m not sure how the housebound were able to get water [including through the free drive-up bottled water distribution center at Hingham High School]. I appreciate the update, but a lot needs to happen to improve communication,” he said.

Even with the issue overall resolved at least for the time being, water users are asked to continue conservation efforts as a matter of course, even when a watering ban is not officially in place.

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