Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons is calling for a new approach to how communications involving the Westerly Water Department, which serves both Westerly and Pawcatuck, are handled after higher than normal levels of chemical additives were found in the water supply Thursday night.
A pump station shut down automatically Thursday night when the system detected a high pH level. On Friday morning, initial tests of the pump station showed the pH at an acceptable level and the pump station was reactivated, said Paul Corina, Westerly Public Works director. But department personnel soon realized that due to a mechanical failure, the pump used to inject potassium hydroxide into the water supply did not stop when the pump station shut off Thursday night. As a result, the chemical built up into a hardened slug that was pushed through the system when the pump station was turned back on.
The slug caused higher than acceptable pH levels, which prompted the department to respond by taking corrective measures that included shutting off the pump stations and flushing them, Corina said. Tests of the water taken after the flushing showed it was within an acceptable range for potassium hydroxide, which is used to reduce corrosion, Corina said.
But Friday at about 6 p.m. Corina said he received a call concerning a Pawcatuck household on Elmridge Road complaining that two residents reported skin irritation after taking showers. High levels of potassium hyroxide can cause skin irritation and burning, Corina said.
Corina responded to the residence and found a high level of the chemical. He then ordered the pipes leading into the house and in the area flushed. After the flushing the chemical levels were within an acceptable range, Corina said, adding that he notified Westerly Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy of the complaints from the residence and that Kennedy said he would notify Simmons.
On Monday Simmons said he did not learn of the problem until Saturday morning when he received a phone call from Selectman John Prue, but by then speculation and comments were rampant on social media. Simmons also acknowledged having received an e-mail from Kennedy that was sent Saturday morning but Simmons said he did not see it until after receiving Prue’s call.
“We could have put out a statement to the water customers to explain what happened and minimize the fear factor that often spreads on social media,” Simmons said.
The email from Kennedy went out at 9:50 a.m. Saturday and was sent to Simmons, the members of the Westerly Town Council, and The Sun.
Simmons said he spoke with Kennedy on Monday and asked Westerly town officials to consider allowing the Ledge Light Health District, which serves as Stonington’s public health department, to handle notification to Pawcatuck residents when water system problems occur.
The two towns first started discussing developing a communications policy for notifying Pawcatuck residents in November, Simmons said, after a boil-water advisory was issued due to the detection of E. coli, an indicator that harmful bacteria could be present in the water.
Kennedy did not return a message seeking comment for this article.