Chatham Approves $5.9 Million For Water System Improvements

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Drinking Water , Infrastructure , Town Meeting , Municipal Finance

A total of 223 voters showed up for Sunday afternoon's special town meeting. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – It took just 19 minutes for voters to approve $5.9 million in water system improvements at Sunday's special town meeting.

The upgrades will complete construction of two new wells and begin the process of treating two other wells recently shut down due to PFAS contamination. Officials say the expenditures are necessary to ensure that the system can meet peak water demand.

The measures passed unanimously with almost no discussion. Chairman of Selectmen Peter Cocolis attributed the support to the wide dissemination of information about the contamination and the need to boost the town's water supply.

“We got ahead of this early,” he said after Sunday's meeting. “I think everybody understands the need for safe water, which we have, and a sufficient quantity.”

The meeting was originally scheduled for Saturday but was moved to Sunday due to the potential for inclement weather. A total of 223 voters showed up at Veterans Field for the third town meeting the town has held outdoors since the pandemic began.

Bringing wells 10 and 11 off Mill Hill Road online will add one million gallons per day to the town's water supply to help meet peak summer demands. Screenings and casings for the wells were installed in 2010, but work stopped after the discovery of the chemical MBTE in the water. With the natural movement of the groundwater, the contaminant is no longer present according to the most recent testing, and the water meets federal and state drinking water standards.

The $4.5 million approved in the article will cover the cost of final design and permitting and construction of the wells, including pumping and treatment equipment, a generator for backup power, an access road, water mains, utilities and site improvement. Officials say it will take about two years to get the wells online.

Levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl above the state maximum were first detected in well 5, off Training Field Road, in April. The well was taken offline, as was adjacent well 8 in September after PFAS levels climbed above the state maximum. The $1.4 million approved Sunday will pay for temporary treatment to remove or reduce PFAS levels, as well as begin the process of designing a treatment plant to remove iron and manganese from the wells, a need that had previously been determined. The final treatment plant will combine both the iron and manganese and PFAS removal in one building.

Finance Committee Chair Stephen Daniel cautioned that the money covers engineering and design costs of the treatment plant, and voters will see a subsequent town meeting article seeking construction funds. A similar iron and manganese treatment facility built in South Chatham several years ago cost $9 million, he said. The treatment plant will take about three years to construct.

PFAS will be treated by pumping the water through two 10-foot-diameter granular activated carbon vessels to lower the chemical levels below the state maximum. The water will then be blended with water from other wells. The vessels will treat water from just one of the wells, probably well 5, contributing about 900 to 1,000 gallons per minute of water to the system. Blending the water into the system will require approval from both the state and the select board. The carbon filters that trap the PFAS will be periodically removed and taken to a facility to be disposed of through burning at a high temperature, said Tom Barr, chief water facilities operator for water department contractor Weston and Sampson.

Installation of the temporary PFAS treatment will cost $650,000. Delivery of the equipment is expected to take about five months. Officials hope to have the system online by April.

The town is preparing to hire a consultant to try to identify the source of the PFAS contamination, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. Ann Dixon asked what can be done to prevent further PFAS contamination.

“I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she said.

The chemical is “ubiquitous,” contained in items as diverse as microwave popcorn containers and fertilizers, said Duncanson. “All of this contributes to the issue. Every septic system in the community is part of the problem,” he said. It's premature to say where the PFAS originated, and a single source may never be identified, he warned.

“Even if there is, we still have to treat the water at the well field,” he said. Fire Chief David DePasquale assured voters that the firefighting foam used by the department does not contain PFAS.

Funds for both articles will be borrowed and paid through water revenue, with no impact on the tax rate.

Voters also approved $11,066 in payment for bills from the last fiscal year.

Moderator William Litchfield said he believed it was the quickest town meeting ever held in town.

“I think that the voters understood the issue, knew what had to be done, and did so,” he wrote in an email Monday.