October 8, 2003


PI Residents plead for clean water



BOSTON - They came armed with a corroded drain valve from a shower, a bottle of murky tap water and pictures of their babies bathing in brown water.

When state Rep. Shirley Owens-Hicks asked about the effect Plum Island water has on health, island resident Ron Barrett yanked down the collar of his T-shirt and bared his blotchy shoulder.

"Do you want to see what the water does?" he yelled from the back of a packed Statehouse hearing room. "This is what it has done to my skin."

At a public hearing yesterday that lasted close to six hours, dozens of Newbury and Newburyport residents and town officials with a stake in the Plum Island water and sewer project stated their case to lawmakers who are considering a bill that would push the project forward.

Project proponents and opponents and lifelong island dwellers and newcomers took turns testifying with personal stories, statistics and numbers about how much it would cost taxpayers and Plum Island residents to extend water and sewer lines to the island.

"This whole thing is just screwy," said Newburyport Mayor Alan Lavender, after listening to several hours of testimony. "I don't understand why people are fighting against this project. We need water for health and safety reasons, and we need sewer for Title 5."

The Plum Island project is intended to remedy Newbury and Newburyport's non-compliance with state septic system regulations known as Title 5. The communities entered into an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection two years ago to bring water and sewer service to the island from Newburyport, at an estimated cost of $22.9 million. The project would be financed by betterment charges on the island's 1,200 properties, costing each household about $20,000.

The bill - which was filed by state Rep. Harriett Stanley, D-West Newbury, and state Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester - would require all island residents to connect to the new water and sewer service.

Supporters say the bill must pass by Nov. 6, which is when Newburyport is scheduled to make its first $40,000 principal payment on the project. The bill would postpone that payment for several years until the project is nearly finished and island residents are paying the city for the betterments, Lavender said.

But project opponents argued yesterday that the legislation squelches the rights of Plum Island residents, while forcing islanders to pay for connecting to a new water and sewer system even if they have already spent thousands of dollars to install their own private systems.

"I have wonderful water," said island resident Paul Daubitz, owner of a $13,000 septic system. "It's very pure. I could sell it as spring water. The current legislation would force me to destroy that system."

Daubitz told members of the Committee on Local Affairs that the mainland of Newburyport and Newbury should have to share in the project's cost.

Other project opponents said they support bringing clean water to the island, but said they don't agree with the proposed project.

"I've always been for water on Plum Island, but there's a better way to do it than this project," said Newburyport City Councilor David McFarlane.

Opponent Doris McDonald of Plum Island asked lawmakers to hold off on considering what she called a "heinous" bill until residents vote this November on whether to do a "lot-by-lot" engineering analysis of sewer and water systems on all Plum Island properties, to see which comply with state regulations.

But residents who urged lawmakers to approve the bill said they don't want to wait to get relief from the discolored, brackish drinking water that comes from the sandy island soil.

"Our water is disgusting," said Robin Gurlitz, an island resident who has a six-year-old daughter. "We're still fighting for what should be a basic right."

Gurlitz offered a bottled sample of her tap water to lawmakers and showed them a large photo of her daughter several years ago in a bathtub filled with murky water.

Her testimony was followed by Heide Holmes, who brought a corroded drain valve from her shower as evidence of poor water quality. She also brought pictures of her 19-month-old son Casey in a bath of brown water.

Holmes fought back tears as she told the committee about a fire that destroyed part of her home in 2002. She said she had to beg the fire department to bring water because it was low tide and there are no fire hydrants on Plum Island.

She told the committee that her son is sensitive to the "salty, brackish" water, and that it stung his eyes and inflamed his skin when she bathed him.

"What kids really do need is clean, drinkable, safe water," Holmes said.

When the hearing ended last night, Committee on Local Affairs Co-Chair Owens-Hicks said the committee would decide whether or not to support the bill early next week.

Committee member state Rep. Anthony J. Verga, D-Gloucester, said he could empathize with residents' concerns about paying a betterment fee, but added, "If you want good, clean water, it seems this (project) would give it to you."

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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