Simmons criticizes Westerly for handling of Pawcatuck water problem

Stonington — First Selectman Rob Simmons is criticizing Westerly Water Co. officials for not telling Pawcatuck residents about a chemical problem that resulted in residents of one home complaining that their shower water was burning their skin.

Police said that a teenage girl who lives in the Elm Ridge Road home first noticed the problem while taking a shower early Friday night and told her father, who also felt the burning sensation. Both declined medical treatment.

Meanwhile, word of the incident prompted worried residents on the popular Stonington Community Forum Facebook page to express confusion and concern. Some wondered whether it was safe to use the water, and others criticized Westerly Water officials for not informing customers about what had happened.

Both Simmons and police said the water company decided not to send out a statement about what had occurred on the town’s emergency alert system. The town's alert system allows residents to be immediately contacted by email, phone and text message.

Westerly Director of Public Works Paul Corina and Town Manager Derrik Kennedy did not respond to an email Sunday asking questions about the incident. The Westerly Water Co. serves Pawcatuck residents.

“Westerly has to do a better job of keeping our residents informed if there is a problem with our water. We need to know if there is an issue so we can inform the public and manage our resources such as Ledge Light Health District, the fire department and public works department,” Simmons said Sunday, adding he would be discussing the issue with Westerly officials.

Simmons said he found about the incident when he was checking his email about 7:30 Saturday morning. He questioned why Kennedy could not have made a better effort to directly inform him on Friday.   

According to an email from Corina and Kennedy that Simmons was copied on Saturday morning, the problem began Thursday night when a pump station was shut down because of a high pH reading. They explained the water company uses a potassium hydroxide solution to raise the pH of the water leaving the pump station for corrosion control.

According to its Material Safety Data Sheet, potassium hydroxide can cause skin irritation and even severe burns with greater exposure.

According to the email, when the pump station went on, a higher concentration of the chemical was sent into the system and the system was shut down. Public works crews were then sent to take readings in the system and flush hydrants. The email states the readings were higher than normal.

The email states that around 6:30 p.m. Friday, the Westerly Public Works Department “was notified of a potential issue with the water in Pawcatuck and responded to the scene.” The email does not mention the specifics of the Elm Ridge Road incident. It states public works crews proceeded to flush the system for about two hours which resulted in restoring the normal pH level of the water.

The email concluded by stating that “Safeguards are being implemented to prevent this type of incident from happening again in the future.”



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