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Brown, rusty water once again plagues Pascoag

BURRILLVILLE, R.I (WPRI) — Residents of the Pascoag section of town are once again dealing with a water problem: brown, yellow and reddish water poured from dozens of faucets late last week and over the weekend.

Justin Hagerty showed Eyewitness News a photo of the yellow water that flowed from his tap on Friday; the water was clear on Monday morning. Other Eyewitness News viewers sent photos of bathtubs and sinks full of murky and discolored water in shades of brown.

“This has definitely been happening for two years strong,” Hagerty said. “Taste, smell…I’m like ‘wow, this is really bad.'”

Mike Kirkwood, the general manager of the Pascoag Utility District (PUD), does not dispute the problem and says he sympathizes with the customers who are dealing with discolored water. A project is underway to keep the water clean long-term, but residents are still dealing with the problem now.

“It’s probably been a multitude of years,” Kirkwood said in an interview with Eyewitness news on Monday. “But it’s accelerating, the system is getting older.”

“It’s not a health issue,” Kirkwood added.

Kirkwood said the system of pipes that carries the district’s water to 1,100 homes is more than 100-years-old. While the cast-iron pipes are structurally in decent shape, Kirkwood says they aren’t lined on the inside, which means the iron rusts when met with water.

The most recent bout of rusty water happened as the result of a fire on March 13 on Camp Dixie Road, Kirkwood said. The velocity with which the firefighters ran water from a fire hydrant caused rusty iron sediment that had settled at the bottom of a huge water tank to be sucked up into the water system. It took some time for the new pool of rust-water to trickle down into the average person’s home; last week, the PUD started getting calls about the brown water.

“I think the frustration has just come to a boiling point,” Hagerty said.

Kirkwood said the water is technically safe to drink–iron is not harmful to the human body. But residents report it doesn’t taste good, and obviously, the brown water is not conducive to, for example, washing a load of whites. “There are people that are throwing away clothes,” Hagerty said.

Plus, residents who are flushing the brown water out of their system are literally pouring money down the drain; customers are not being reimbursed for the costs of the brown water.

“Flushing the system costs me money,” Hagerty said. He pays the water bills at two apartments he rents out, along with his own unit. “When that thing’s dripping, it’s dripping money.”

“It’s the way it is, unfortunately,” Kirkwood said. “No one wants to pay for a product that they can’t use for periods of time.” He said the nonprofit utility district is 100% funded by its customers’ water bills, and there is no extra cash or a “rainy day fund” to pay people back.

There is a long-term fix in the works. Residents of the water district voted in 2015 to approve a $2.4 million dollar project, partly paid for by a USDA grant and partly with a bond, that will fix 30% of the rusty pipes. Kirkwood said construction began last April and paused for the winter; it will continue next month. Instead of replacing the pipes, the project will line the iron insides with cement, in order to prevent the water from directly touching iron and rusting.

That project should be completed by August or September, Kirkwood said, and should partly alleviate the rust problem. There isn’t yet a schedule to fix the other 70% of the pipes, which would require more funding. Kirkwood said the cost of some recent repair projects were offset by settlement money from a lawsuit after a local gas station leaked a dangerous additive called MBTE into the district’s water supply back in 2001. (Pascoag now buys its water from nearby Harrisville.)

While repairs are underway, Kirkwood said he has placed an order for cases of bottled water that he plans to offer to residents who call to complain. He also said residents can purchase a “full-house filter” that filters out iron and the water district will reimburse half of the cost, up to $250.

The PUD regularly tests the water, and all tests have come up bacteria-free for the past several years. Another test was conducted Monday, the results of which should be available on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Health said the state plans to conduct its own test of the water later this week.

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