Michitson: Lack of Notice to Council on Water Treatment Failure ‘Embarrassing’

Deputy DPW Director Robert E. Ward

Council President John A. Michitson scolded the city’s deputy DPW director for keeping councilors in the dark about an incident at the water treatment plant, and a March letter sent to Haverhill residents about the event.

Deputy Public Works Director Robert E. Ward explained that a series of short power outages at the water treatment plant on Dec. 11, 2016, resulted in a small quantity of inadequately chlorinated water being released into a “clean well” where water is held before it is pumped out of the plant. Ward said it was less than 1 percent of the total amount of water pumped out of the treatment plant that day.

“The biggest problem was that the City Council wasn’t told ahead of time. It was embarrassing,” Michitson told Ward, who is in charge of the city’s water treatment plant. Michitson said residents called him worried about the contents of the letter, which sent him running to his mailbox to find out what the fuss was about.

At no time was he worried about the safety of the city’s drinking water supply, Ward said, noting that the non-chlorinated water had mixed in the clear well with water that was chlorinated, rendering the entire batch safe of any contaminants.

The next day, during a regular state Department of Environmental Protection visit to the plant, Ward informed the inspector of the incident. He provided additional data for state testing about a week to 10 days later, then waited for the state’s response.

“We didn’t feel any urgency; didn’t feel there was a danger to public safety or public health,” Ward said.

When the DEP responded on Feb. 7, it found the city in violation of a state regulation mandating a certain level of disinfectant in the water, and ordered the city to notify residents within 90 days.

According to the notice, sent to all Haverhill households in early March, the power outages prevented disinfectant from being added to the drinking water for a nine-minute period during the Dec. 11 event.

The mailing noted that residents would not be required to take any action, such as boiling water, because there were no dangerous levels of bacteria or parasites in the water as a result of the low level of disinfectant found. The notice cautioned cautionary information about risks to people with compromised immune systems, infants and some elderly.

Ward said the letter contained wording required by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and he agreed that it could have been confusing and even a bit scary for residents.

The entire City Council didn’t share Michitson’s concerns about being left out of the loop.

City Councilor Michael S. McGonagle said he was fine with learning about the incident along with all the rest of Haverhill’s residents.

“I don’t care about notifying us,” he said. “We’re no more important than anyone else.”

Councilors also debated about the timing of the notice. Joseph A. Bevilacqua suggested Ward should have notified residents at the time of the incident in December, then followed up with additional information as it became available. But Councilor William A. Macek disagreed, saying a notification at that time, with no test results to back it up, would have caused unnecessary fear and concern.

McGonagle said he was more concerned with making sure procedures were put in place to ensure a similar problem doesn’t happen again.

Ward said equipment has already been installed that will prevent water from being pumped out of the treatment plant until all treatment processes have been completed.

A planned upgrade of the water treatment plant will eliminate the possibility of an incident like the one on Dec. 11 from happening again, Ward said.


4 thoughts on “Michitson: Lack of Notice to Council on Water Treatment Failure ‘Embarrassing’

  1. Bob Ward isn’t just a great guy, he’s smart and very competent. He also knows that he works for a manipulative, controlling boss who wants to micro-manage everything. You can bet the house that once this incident occurred the first thing Ward did was to notify Jimmy Taxman. There is absolutely no way Bob Ward made the decision of public notification about this issue on his own. Once he informed the mayor of this incident it was then the mayor’s decision to cover it up for as long as he could. Had the State come back after their testing was complete and said there is no reason to inform the public, citizens of Haverhill would never had found out about this. The mayor would have kept it secret because it reflects directly on his incompetence.

    Once again we see the lengths the mayor will go to throw a subordinate under the bus for his decisions. Anyone who works at city hall knows exactly what I’m talking about. Bob Ward has to suffer a public grilling for the decision by the mayor, and the mayor says nothing. This happened last fall during the election when the mayor instructed Building Inspector Richard Osborne to threaten a city homeowner with fines if he did not take down the campaign signs for the candidate the mayor did not support. The mayor hung Osborne out to dry to answer for the his mandate. Osborne had to answer questions to media outlets from across the country, while the mayor acted as if he had no idea what Osborne was up to.

    Shame on every city councilor for not asking Bob Ward directly whose decision it was not to inform the public of this incident!!!

    • Very true. Bob is a smart guy and Haverhill is lucky to still have him on board. Bob is just another speed bump on the Mayors’ road to his legacy.