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Natick - Local Town Pages

Town Water Supply Violates New State Standards

By Sean Sullivan

Natick residents were informed that the town’s water supply was in violation of new state standards this year. One could turn on the tap and fill a drinking glass, but was now beset by fresh questions about the quality of its contents.

The contaminants at issue belong to a family of compounds that have ominously come to be called “forever chemicals,” owing to their resilience in nature.

 They resist being broken down, degraded and absorbed by the environment. They are the chemical cousins of plastic bottles, in that they persist in the landscape virtually unchanged for many years. These substances are found in a wide variety of consumer products, which complicates tracing them to any single source.

“Water, water every where / And all the boards did shrink / Water, water every where / Nor any drop to drink.”

Thus is the ironic plight of seafarers in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Blown off course into desolate waters, the sailors are beset by dwindling supplies and other assorted misfortunes.

While not surrounded on all sides by water as far as the eye can see, residents of Natickand neighboring towns are nevertheless blessed to be situated among a generous distribution of lakes and ponds.

At around 25 percent of its surface area, Massachusetts ranks near the top of the list in terms of topography comprised of fresh water. Michigan has the highest percentage, at just over 40 percent.

Coleridge’s sailors were taunted by such a plentiful (yet inaccessible) supply of water, the state of their deprivation made all the more galling. 

While Coleridge’s sailors could curse Mother Nature for blowing them off course and into peril, we more-modern fellow travelers have only to look in the mirror for who’s responsible for our water’s quality.

Positively saturated and nearly surrounded by fresh water, residents of Flint Michigan are nevertheless world famous for having endured one of the worst water crises in our nation’s history. That state government tinkering haphazardly with its water supply led to the leeching of lead from public pipes. From there, the tainted water flowed into cooking pots, showers, and drinking vessels of residents.

Natick’s current water issue is nowhere near as acute and serious as that of Flint’s, but it’s a reminder of the perils that pollution poses to our most precious resources in an interconnected environment shared by all.

Ours is also a story of standards. Natick was found to be in violation of this class of chemicals in part because Massachusetts holds itself to more rigid and rigorous metrics around pollution. Currently, the federal government has no standards regulating the specific chemicals that are receiving new scrutiny by the Bay State.

Six of these compounds, known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkylsubstances, are the targets of the new testing standards for Massachusetts municipalities. Abbreviated as PFAS6, the state now considers any levels of these chemicals at or above 20 parts-per trillion (PPT) to be a violation of code.

That these substances are seen as potentially hazardous in such minuscule amounts may attest to their potency. On the other hand, the new standards set by the state assume a lifetime exposure to PSAF6 compounds above the 20 PPT limit, a circumstance that seems unlikely with the new testing and remedial regimens being adopted.  

Local governments must average below this limit over the course of three months to pass the new strictures. This is the first year that the standard has been in place, and Natick’s Springvale water treatment plant showed an elevated average level of PFAS6 in the first quarter of 2021.

The Springvale water treatment facility at 1080 Worcester Road is ubiquitous to passers-by, its gleaming metal silos standing out and squat, overlooking Lake Cochituate and motorists on the busy adjacent thoroughfare.

There are two sources at Springvale that feed the town’s water distribution system, and both of these points exhibited higher average levels of the chemicals than are now permitted. The numbers in non-compliance were in the low 20 PPT range, and the exact figures can be found on the town’s website.

Massachusetts announced the new guidelines for PFAS6 levels last fall, and town officials have been working to meet the measures.

“It’s been busy,” said Jeremy Marsette. “We’ve been very proactive.”

Marsette is director of Natick’s Department of Public Works, and has been busied for much of this year with meeting the state’s new water standard.

Natick derives its tap water from various sources, and each is regularly monitored for quality and contaminants. Two of these sources host water treatment facilities, the aforementioned Springvale, and the Elm Bank plant located in Dover.

As a temporary remedy for the elevated levels of PFAS6, Natick increased its draw from the Dover source, while conversely paring back the water it derives from Springvale. Elm Bank showed the lowest levels of PFAS6 contamination, and thus Natick plans to get the bulk of its water from that source for the time being.

The increased scrutiny seems to be taking effect, according to testing data posted for April and May on the town’s website. Average levels of PFAS6 compounds appear on a downward trend during the second quarter so far, though no data was available for June as of this writing.    

Natick can maintain this shuffling of its water sources for the rest of the year, by which time town officials expect to have a new filtering system in place at Springvale.

A series of four charcoal-based (carbon) filters will be installed there, in a new structure being designed and built to house them, keep them from freezing during the winter. All told, the upgrades will cost around three million dollars.

This may bode well for those in the habit of filtering water at home for personal use, as similar technology can be found in many off-the-shelf water filters. The much-larger versions of these filters were chosen for the Springvale plant due to their efficacy and relative cost advantage.

They are also one of the few technologies approved by Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection to filter the contaminants at issue.

Town officials expect the new filtering facility to go online in the fall. Its filters will have a lifespan of about two years, after which they can be swapped out for fresh units. Marsette said that personnel plan to test the water after it passes through the “lead” (first) filter, and use that as a standard of quality control going forward. The water will then move through the remaining three to purify it further.

He added that Natick’s current circumstances and proactive approach may have saved the town money in procuring the new filters, which are custom-built. As more towns run afoul of the new water standards, demand (and cost) for the filters is on the rise. It’s a state of affairs that may not bode well for the prospect of pure water locally and globally.

“We’re very happy that we got in the queue,” said Marsette. “We have a great team here. I think we’re all learning.”