South Shore town’s brown water blues set to end soon

Norwell residents dealing with ‘Tan out of the tap’ for months

NORWELL, Mass. — They can be found in fabric, in packaging, in such consumer goods as cosmetics. But when perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) get into groundwater there is usually one source.

“More often than not, it’s the use of chemicals in firefighting foam,” said Chris Higgins, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

Last summer, the Norwell Water Department found levels of PFAS at the South Street Treatment Plant slightly above what the state allows -- which is 20 parts per trillion -- an exceedingly small number, and a standard much stricter than the EPA’s 140 parts per trillion, said Superintendent Jack McInnis.

“And a part per trillion is a thousand times less than a part per billion, and a part per billion is a thousand times less than a part per million,” McInnis said.

Still, it was enough to force the town to take contaminated sources out of service. That, however, presented a problem: Demand for water did not go away.

“By taking those wells out of service we lost 650 gallons of crystal clear water, which contained elevated levels of PFAS,” McInnis said.

That’s 650 gallons a minute -- and to replace it, the Water Department pulled into service a well they prefer not to use. Not because it contains chemicals or anything harmful -- but because the water it renders is naturally brownish.

“The analogy would be what gives whiskey its color is the barrel,” McInnis said. “I agree it’s not pleasing to look at.”

But the town said it is perfectly fine to drink.

That won’t persuade Eva Deveney to try it. She’s been buying bottled water for months.

“It runs definitely brown,” Deveney said. “I really don’t know what’s in it, causing the color brown. But I know when I see that I definitely don’t want to use it.”

But Norwell’s brown-water days may be coming to an end soon.

McInnis said work recently done on wells should mean they can take the discolored-water well out of service and return clarity to Norwell’s water situation.

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