In good hands

Spent Saturday afternoon at DPW awaiting the water test results, which came in way later than expected.  Fortunately, the results were good – no contaminants, no need to boil (read the Town’s press release here) – and I could wait all day for good results. 

It was great to see all of these really devoted Town employees gathered together and ready to spring into action to deal with the many contingent pieces of this, had the test results come back positive for contaminants. 

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring and Water Resources Director Bob Pariseau were the experts, and had been dealing with Department of Environmental Protection for a couple of days on this, and knew what next steps were necessary, had it come to that. 

Health Director Epi Bodhi and Assistant Health Director Julie Federman were ready to assist with notification, information and other Health Department protocols, such as mobilizing the Amherst Medical Reserve Corps, if that were needed.

Police Chief Charlie Scherpa was there as a key emergency responder and because the Police Department is where so many turn for information. Police Sergeant David Knightly was there to assist as well, but the Chief let him go pretty early, once it was clear the results could take a while.

Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano was there to activate the network of volunteers she had put together to deliver bottled water to vulnerable senior citizens, had that been necessary. 

I.T. Director Kris Pacunas was there for technical communication assistance – putting information out on the Town web site and activating the Connect-CTY automated phone notification system.  (And that system worked great!  What a valuable tool.)

And Town Manager Larry Shaffer and Assistant Town Manager John Musante were there to manage the situation, trouble-shoot and make sure all bases were covered. 

Diana and I were there just to make sure the Select Board knew what was going on (Gerry wasn’t available; Alisa was willing and available, but we wanted to keep it to only one or two of us, or else you get into those pesky quorum issues.)  We may have been able to add a little value, through her background in biology and mine in public relations, but really, we were just there to listen and learn.

Impressive bunch of knowledge, organization and dedication – all assembled on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend, looking out for Amherst.  Thank goodness this turned out to be a non-issue, but had it been otherwise, the Town was prepared, and I felt we were in good hands. 


YourAdmirer said:

How many people reported illness? Has there been any effort to document any such reports?
Without getting into the bloody details, could this explain the symptoms observed last Saturday-Tuesday here in our North Amherst home? Will you or Diana be asking Larry to ask Epi to survey households about this? And what seems to have been the cause or source of the problem, so that this can be prevented or at least be made less likely to recur in the future?

Larry Kelley said:

Yeah, and in this post 9/11 age it never hurts to have a "real world" scenario play out.

When Boston FAA first contacted NORAD concerning two planes hijacked that awful morning the first thing the military dispatcher asked was "Is this real world or exercise?"

Unfortunately, it was all to real.

Congratulations to all our town employees for a job well done today. You passed the test (this time).

I believe that no illnesses were reported and that the gastrointestinal problems associated with such issues are so common that it would be very difficult to attribute them to any particular cause -- but that is just my understanding of the situation, and not to be construed as an official answer. If you have concerns, I encourage you to contact the Health Department on Tuesday (259-3077.) Also, Bob Pariseau has said he believes the initial E.coli hit was a sampling error (caused by a contaminated sampling procedure, not contaminated water) because the chlorination amount in the sample was inconsistent with the presence of E.coli - the chlorine would have killed it. And since the follow-up tests were negative, that certainly seems reasonable. (Translation: if there was no bacteria, then it wasn't causing any illnesses.) Again, my answers should not be considered official or definitive.

I am sure that this issue will be carefully examined to see what can be learned from it, and how something similar might be prevented in the future. It sure is nice to have the opportunity to learn from a good outcome instead of a bad one.

Eva Schiffer said:

Stephanie, thank you so much for your good report about your insider view of the command center. As I wrote in an e-mail to some of the people you mention above (I notice that I missed several), and to the Select Board, I thought that this situation was handled in an exemplary manner, starting with the immediate sharing of information with the public, clearly, and in non-alarmist fashion. As for the reverse-911 phone message system, it certainly proved its justification and effectiveness yesterday.

What the public had no way of knowing was the impressive amount of planning and preparedness, for a different outcome, that was in place.

Altogether, I'm delighted to know you are confident that we are in good hands. So am I.

I hope you can enjoy what's left of the weekend.

Grouchy Graduate Student said:

Respectfully, I am NOT convinced that the E-Coli was contamination. First, it was concurrent with cloroform and second, I have trouble believing that the person taking samples wouldn't practice good hygene in doing so. Possibly, but...

Second, bacteria *can* live in the presence of chlorine, and the E-Coli in this sample (regardless of source, contamination or not) did in order to be cultured. It is the LEVEL of chlorine that matters, think of how much chlorine is in a public pool versus drinking water.

What I would want to see is the bacteria count of the PRE-TREATED water coming from the source. For that matter, how well fenced/guarded/secured is the inlet area of the various sources?

For that matter, does the hydrant flushing schedule reflect the fact that if UMass (a) uses 40% less water than before and (b) has lots of empty dorms not using any during the summer, you might get more stagnant water in the lines (which can cause this)?

Third, I have trouble attributing this to just rain. YES, heavy rain will wash bacteria (animal waste, etc) into surface water but when was the last time that Amherst had a heavy rain? When was the last time there was significant runoff across waterlogged ground?
Late July? And this is late August -- there hasn't been enough rain to wash the stuff leaked out of the garbage truck off the pavement.

Fourth, the town's response to those of us unfortunate to be UMass students borders on criminal neglect. My first notification was a paniced email from an undergrad about how there was CYANIDE[!!!] in the drinking water and that I should boil it.

Yes, it is possible for there to be cyanide in the water and it not be an issue -- there likely is at least a little arsenic in at least your deep drilled well water -- the issue is if it is enough to be even relevant. For example, your granite countertop is not only radioactive but leaking Radon gas -- but not enough of either to bother worrying about. So I didn't know if someone had started a rumor or if there was a problem (or a terrorist act).

So I called the top level of UMass public info and was told to read the article that Nan wrote for Masslive. THAT was the extent of my notification until Larry Kelly posted the town memo on his blog.

BTW -- Care to imagine what would have happened had I not immediatly told the undergrad (and everyone else) that I was absolutly sure that if there was a reportable level of cyanide in the water, the solution would NOT be to boil it -- and that I had enough credibility in public health (from undergrad days) to be believed?

The UMass apartments don't receive ACTV cable channels (why is another issue but we don't). We are on a different 911 system and don't receive the calls. I wanted to make the comparison of if you translate something into Spanish & Kamir because it is important you also want to tell the evil UM students about it -- but you *didn't* translate either message (1 or 2) into Spanish and Kamir (Cambodian) and you do have large populations in town that don't speak English.

Fifth, the town made plans to distribute bottled water to the shut-in elderly and the university to the dorms -- but those of in the graduate apartments would have been served by whom? Not all have cars, 2/3 speak English as a second language if at all, and while sending notices home with the children was a good idea, it only helps those with small children in school in the first place....

I was not impressed with the response to this.

Anonymous said:

I was sick but not enough to bother with UMass Death Services.

I thought it was food poisoning (which, technically, it was).

Grouchy Grad --

I am sorry you didn't feel this was handled well. Your point about the difficulty of reaching every person is a good one, and probably impossible to resolve. The best hope is to cast a very wide net, use multiple sources of information distribution and try to reach as many people as possible.

Discussion about the causes and science behind the testing is meaningless when it comes from those of us without expertise or true knowledge of the situation, so it wouldn't be helpful for me to comment on those points. For the record, coliform, not chloroform, was the concern, and such inaccuracies are why it is irresponsible for us to speculate.

I will note a couple of points though. My understanding is that facilities and administration people at UMass and the colleges were kept informed about the situation. Also, the initial press release announcing the bacteria hits and the need for follow-up tests was widely distributed and covered on Friday, and a Spanish translation of the release was provided to a Spanish television station as well.

And those who are concerned that they might not receive the automated phone calls from the Town can read this on the Town web site, and register their phone numbers in the system.

I'm sure that suggestions for how the Town might better handle such a situation in the future would be welcomed -- you can e-mail the full Select Board at Some of your other concerns might be best addressed with UMass.

Anonymous said:

In this post Virginia Tech age most colleges have all students registered for email, text and phone notification for emergency situations such as this. I recall reading that UMass is up to date on this service.

Ed Cutting said:

> I will note a couple of points though. My understanding is
> that facilities and administration people at UMass and the
> colleges were kept informed about the situation.

What you need to understand is that telling colleges does NOT mean telling their students. Picture the Federal Govt telling something to Boston who then might (or more likely might not) tell Amherst, and whom in Amherst would they tell....

Even when the university itself tells itself that it will, say, shut off electricity or water, that doesn't mean that anyone will tell the student tenants about it....

When the relationship between the town and the schools essentially resembles that of a labor/management relationship, things which the town needs to tell the students via the schools gets filtered through that matrix. Does it benefit the schools to have the students upset with the town - will it benefit them in future negotiations to show that the town did something bad to the students? Then much as a union might not go above & beyond to distribute a message from management, the schools might not.....

Throw into the mix that the 353 graduate student apartments are neither really on the front burner of either the town or the university, that both would like to pawn us off on the other, and neither side really wants to be nice to us...

Thanks for the email address, though...


Ed Cutting said:

One other thing:

What about the sidewalk on Fearing Street?

Fearing Street is the most direct route between Southwest (5,500 students) and downtown and hence a pedestrian route.

Last July the sidewalk washed out due to -- depending on whom you talk to, a flood, poor maintenance and/or the town's unwillingness to work with the university relative to flood control on a stream that runs there, goes under the FAC, feeds the campus pond and then dumps out to the west where it often floods athletic fields.

In any case, there is no sidewalk there. No sidewalk on the other side. So the students have to walk in the road. And......

And when someone winds up as a hood ornament we can all express our regret, but....

Likewise the Main Street Railroad Crossing -- which I discussed at length with the former town manager. Code calls for a round yellow reflective RR sign, which isn't there (at least from the east). If you are driving in from the East at night, you are somewhat blinded by the lights as the last bright lights were in Fitchburg. And the traffic light by where HAPCO used to be is far more visible than the very high RR lights over the road.

Around midnight there is a train that involves unlit/unreflectored flatcars being switched and stopped dead across the road. The train might have blown a whistle (why isn't THAT a noise issue?) but that was some time earlier.

And while we can blame it on youth or inexperience or even intoxication, how about a good faith attempt to prevent the fatality before it happens? Why not put up some big bright (reflective) signs on both sides of the road that at least warn motorists and then if some young drunken moron plows into a stopped flatcar, we can at least feel good about having made a good faith effort to warn people...

There is no reason for there not to be the yellow RR sign....


Anonymous said:

I would think that the flashing red lights and bells that are going off at that point are more effective than a yellow reflective sign Ed....

Ed – the questions about Fearing Street and the railroad crossing would be best directed to the DPW. You could call (259-3050) or e-mail (,) or you and others might also be interested in trying out the new Request and Complaint Tracker on the Town web site.

ed said:

Thanks for the complaint form URL -- done.

As to the RR crossing -- *I* saw the green traffic light and then the stopped boxcar *BEFORE* I saw the flashing red lights up in the trees.

Things don't get heard inside modern cars with windows rolled up and AC running -- there is a reason why School Bus drivers are (or used to be) required to open the door before crossing a RR track.

And as to the 3-selectmen rule on the water meeting. Good call Steph but the *wrong* one -- it already was an "emergency public meeting" and the call should have been to invite the media under the rules for such things. You had multiple town officials there to discuss and deliberate an important town decision and the media should have been there.

If space didn't allow, a "pool" reporter, or one at a time in the building, or whatever -- but with multiple town departments involved (health, police, dpw) and the town manager and at least one selectperson, I think it met the definition of an emergency public meeting in principle even if not in fact.

The Boston subways are plastered with "911 was a lie" stickers - credibility is important and it isn't like you have anything to hide. So make it public -- post the lab reports as .pdfs on the town website - put EVERYTHING out there and then even people like me won't be asking any questions.

(You live in a town with too many professional researchers, which is what graduate degrees are. Be told to only trust primary sources enough and you start wanting to see them for everything...)


Anonymous said:

hey stephanie
a bit off the subject, but since you have one of the most reasonable heads around, WHATY ABOUT THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE. they (or perhaps just 2 of them) are acting like children, and they are suppose to be making policies regarding our kids. also, a bit of reverse discrimination when neither wants a white male to lead the retreat!!! for their information not all or even a majority of white males are born into privilage

Ed – Providing more information to people about how our government works on our behalf is hugely important to me. And yet, I have to disagree about the water meeting being public. It was a staff meeting. These were a bunch of employees trying to do their jobs, and it is just practical and efficient for most work to be done without the glare and intrusion of media and the public. Open Meeting Law doesn’t apply to staff for a reason. I see your point that an “emergency” situation calls for different standards. Maybe. Or maybe that means the stakes are higher for staff needing to do their jobs without distraction.

I believed it was important to have Select Board representation there. Not everyone agrees. (By that, I mean not everyone in town. No one at the meeting suggested – not to me, anyway – that the SB didn’t belong there.) Micromanagement, actual or perceived, was the argument against SB presence, and that is not an unreasonable concern. I felt that for a serious situation affecting the whole community, the SB ought to be there to know what was going on. We were the representatives of the public, there to see, hear and speak to the situation from the public’s perspective. To me, that addressed the accountability and credibility issue. I can understand that others could want more than that.

Interesting that I have heard arguments for both extremes – from media to only staff. I can see the merits of both, but so far, I’m not persuaded that either option was better than what we had. It’s a judgment call.


Anon – about the School Committee: I can’t comment on the specifics of that situation. But I can say that working as part of a group is hard. Collaborating is hard. It's hard enough when group membership is static; it's even harder with changing membership and shifting dynamics. It's hard enough when the whole group agrees on where it wants to end up, but differs on how to get there; it's harder still when the group doesn’t even agree on where it’s trying to go. It's hard to figure out if you are compromising for the greater good, or compromising your beliefs. Messy stuff.

Disagree with us, criticize us, challenge us – but just remember that we’re all doing the best we can to do what we think is right. And it’s hard. Fortunately, it’s also glamorous, exciting and lucrative. Oh, wait…



Recent Comments