The water cycle: Systems in Attleboro, North Attleboro in constant flow
HomeHome > News > The water cycle: Systems in Attleboro, North Attleboro in constant flow

The water cycle: Systems in Attleboro, North Attleboro in constant flow

Jul 17, 2023

Most of us take for granted that when we turn on the tap the water will flow.

It’s been that way for more than 100 years, since wooden water mains once ran under city streets, but things have gotten more complex during that time, with necessary maintenance and system improvements as well as changing environmental standards to ensure drinking water supplies are clean and safe.

There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes at the Attleboro and North Attleboro water departments to keep the water flowing through treatment plants and hundreds of miles of water mains in the two communities.

Specialists, with the help of computer technology, add just the right amount of chemicals to make it safe to drink.

Water department employees and crews, along with those in the wastewater department, go about their work providing water to drink. Then, they clean it and put it back into circulation.

They are the quiet heroes who make local municipalities run because life is disrupted without clean water.

One recent complexity is concern about polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” which have been found to be harmful to humans and animals, increasing the chances of everything from reproduction issues to cancer.

Massachusetts established a new limit of 20 nanograms/liter (ng/L), which equals 20 parts per trillion (PPT), for a combination of six PFAS compounds in October 2020. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a standard of 70 PPT for two of the PFAS compounds.

The state standard is reported to be among the most stringent in the nation. Water systems across Massachusetts, including some locally, started making plans to mitigate the chemicals when the standard changed. The chemicals date to the 1940s and are used to create grease, water and stain resistance in items such as waterproof clothing, certain cookware, and take-out containers. They are more dangerous for pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

According to U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to reproductive problems such as decreased fertility or high blood pressure in pregnant women.

There are other effects.

They can cause development problems in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes. There’s an increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney and testicular.

There’s a reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response and interference with the body’s natural hormones.

And there are possible increases in cholesterol levels and a risk of obesity.

In Attleboro, the highest PFAS number in the last two years at Orr’s Pond, which supplies the West Street treatment plant, was 13.3 PPT in February. The lowest was 5.7 PPT in June 2021.

Manchester Reservoir, which also supplies the West Street treatment plant, recorded its highest number of 7.4 PPT in July 2022, and its lowest of 2.2 PPT in August 2021.

The city’s Wading River treatment plant, which is located in Mansfield, is much different.

It recorded its highest number of 42 PPT in July 2022. Its lowest was 14 PPT in April 2021. It has been offline since October 2022.

In June, the city council approved a $3.5 million loan order to install a temporary filtering system at the Wading River treatment plant, which gets its water from Blake’s Pond. It will reduce PFAS to a drinkable level.

Water Superintendent Kourtney Allen said the temporary filtration system should be up and running by the beginning of next summer, but it isn’t that the construction will take that long.

“It’s the lead time to get the parts needed,” she said.

The system should be online for about four years while a permanent filtration system is designed and built.

She said the permanent system could cost as much as $25 million.

In Attleboro, water mostly free of PFAS is being provided at the West Street treatment plant. Residents bring their own containers and can fill them free of charge between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., seven days a week.

The filling station is not open currently because the Wading River plant is off-line.

“This is not bottled water, but it is water produced directly from the West Street plant, which remains in compliance with the new PFAS regulations,” the city website said.

In North Attleboro, the town, which supplies some of Plainville with its drinking water, has plans for a filtration system to remove PFAS, according to DPW Director Mark Hollowell.

The Adamsdale filtration system has yet to be installed and the McKeon system is in the design phase.

The Adamsdale Well has been offline since Dec. 2, 2020, after recording an average for the first quarter of 25.3 PPT.

For the first quarter of 2023, the Whiting treatment plant recorded an average of 16.7 PPT. In the second quarter, the average was 13.4 PPT.

The McKeon treatment plant registered an average of 22.8 PPT in the first quarter of 2023 and 20.8 in the second quarter.

The Hillman Well recorded an average of 10.4 PPT in the first quarter and 15.2 PPT in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the North Attleboro Water Division in January 2022 constructed a PFAS-free water kiosk at 49 Whiting St., for sensitive groups, which include pregnant women, breastfeeding women, children under one year old or people with compromised immune systems. The kiosk was funded by a $150,000 grant with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

While intended for these groups, the kiosk is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to all North Attleboro and Plainville residents.

The kiosk will remain operational until the town’s water system meets the new DEP regulation for PFAS.

Another danger is lead pipes.

According to U.S. EPA statistics, Massachusetts has 117,090 lead pipes still in use.

That sounds like a lot and it is, but it represents only about 1.27% of all the pipes in the state.

Unfortunately, though, Massachusetts has the second highest percentage of all the New England states, behind Connecticut at 1.60%. The other states are all at less than 1%.

Allen said there are no lead mains in Attleboro, which has about 220 miles of water mains, and a survey is showing no lead connections to homes or businesses.

“We have not found any out there, and we don’t think there are any out there,” she said.

There are still about 200 connections to check.

“We still have to check a couple of hundred, but we’re pretty sure we won’t find any,” she said.

According to the EPA, lead in water is dangerous, especially for children.

“EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood,” according to the EPA’s website. “Taking action to reduce these exposures can improve outcomes. Lead is harmful to health, especially for children.”

Even low levels of lead exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells, according to the EPA’s website.

Last week, Seekonk was awarded $259,740 to seek out any remaining lead connections in town.

Meanwhile, Allen said replacement of mains in Attleboro is an ongoing process that started about five years ago.

“The goal is to do one mile a year,” she said, at a cost of about $2,112,000. That’s $400 a foot, she said.

“In recent years, we have replaced Read Street from County Street to West Street, Deanville Road and Commonwealth Avenue under the highway, High Street, portions of Franklin Street, Roy Avenue under the Seven Mile River and Steere Street,” she said.

Others have been cleaned and lined.

“Lonsdale Avenue, Elmwood Avenue, and Park Place have recently been cleaned and lined,” Allen said. “This is a good alternative when a main is still in good shape, but water quality is an issue.”

Upcoming plans for more replacements include the following.

“As far as plans for replacement, Bishop Street has been designed and is intended for replacement in the next few years,” Allen said. “This is dependent on funding and the schedule for the capping of the Shpack landfill.”

Meanwhile, Lindsey Street is in design this year, but there is only funding for about a mile and a half of new water main, she said.

Allen said unlined cast iron mains can cause water discoloration, but the department has a method to deal with that.

“Beginning in the spring that just passed, we instituted a uni-directional flushing plan,” she said. “This style of flushing uses less water than traditional flushing, and more effectively clears sediment from older mains, such as the cast iron typically found in South Attleboro.”

Future work is listed in the city’s capital improvement plans.

“The city’s CIP plan lists potential projects of cleaning and lining the large water mains out near the Wading River plant, and the replacement of some smaller mains from the connection with Pawtucket into South Attleboro,” Allen said. “Both these projects are funding dependent.”

And in North Attleboro, there are about 125 miles of water mains, according to Hollowell.

He said the ages of the water mains date from 1884 and that replacement is happening.

But it’s slow going.

“Over the past 17 years of my time in North Attleboro, we have had a program of replacing about $1 million worth of water mains a year,” he said. “Depending on size, this is about 1.5 miles of water main per year. That is about 82.5 years for replacement of the whole system.”

He said the town uses cement-lined ductile water mains.

“That’s an excellent material,” he said. “It is more flexible and the lining prohibits mineral deposit growth. We do not allow plastic pipe or HDPE piping in the public system, but more and more residents are choosing it on the homeowner’s side of the water service.”

Hollowell said most lead services have been removed.

“Water services are typically copper, but they were lead or steel before the 1950s,” he said. “The town has a program to remove lead services from the water system and most have been removed on the town’s side.”

Hollowell said older mains are high on the list for replacement.

“Our replacement program tries to take into account frequency of breaks, age and material of mains and if there are paving projects going on in the near future,” he said. “We have actually taken care of the worst pipes where we have a lot of breaks, so we are now focusing on planning out with road and gas work to stay ahead.”

But breaks still happen.

“We still have main breaks, but typically our distribution crew can fix a break in about four hours on average,” he said. “They are excellent at maintaining the system.”

Some mains still need to be replaced.

“There are still over 10 miles of mains from before 1900 up to the new mains installed this year on Cushman Road, Paine Road, Mendon Road and Orne Street,” he said.

And while those old pipes are still in the ground, they’re not made of wood.

“We do not have any wood pipes to our knowledge, but the older pipes, prior to 1944 are unlined cast iron,” he said. “In 1944, while the country was at war and using steel for tanks and ships, many communities turned to using transite pipe, (asbestos), which was used along with cast iron up through 1970. Today, water mains are replaced with cement lined ductile iron pipe.”

Hollowell said cast iron is “typically very strong.”

“But it’s not flexible, so if the pipe was sitting on ledge it would tend to crack over time,” he said. “Being unlined, you tend to accumulate mineral deposits on it. These deposits, while not harmful, can cause discoloration when the water is moved back and forth in the main quickly like during a fire. This is why we have a flushing program to minimize the sediments and deposits.”

Asbestos pipes are like paper-mâché, he said.

“It is fine until you touch it, but if you dig around it, you will likely weaken it to the point where it falls apart,” Hollowell said. “Working with a transite is more difficult as there are special precautions in working around asbestos. Our staff has been trained on removal and replacement.”

And back in Attleboro, while rumors persist that there are still some wooden water mains in South Attleboro, Allen says it’s not true.

“We don’t have wood water mains,” she said. “Most are cast iron and ductile iron. We have mains over 100 years old, but most of the system is from around the 1950s through 1970s.”

George W. Rhodes may be reached at 508-236-0432.