June 25, 2018
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Stonington’s water chief resigns after report shows big problems

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

STONINGTON, Maine — The town’s longtime water chief has resigned after a consultant’s report showed that in the past five years, the Stonington Water Company has lost more water than it has sold.

Roger Stone, who submitted his resignation on April 5, had been the superintendent of the water company for nearly 20 years. He had come under fire recently after a third-party report showed major inadequacies in the infrastructure and maintenance of the water company.

Initial estimates put fixing or replacing all the bad spots in the system at nearly $2 million.

According to the report issued weeks earlier by the environmental engineering firm Olver Associates Inc., of Winterport, there are serious problems in the condition and operations of the water company, which provides potable water to about 270 customers.

A significant portion of water main infrastructure is nearly 100 years old. Crucial pieces of equipment, such as emergency generators, well pumps and flow meters are broken or in dire need of maintenance, according to the report. Water testing equipment, such as a chlorine meter, are out-of-date and useless. One of two year-round wells is so ridden with colloidal material that its yield has been reduced by 75 percent.

Most jarring, according to the Olver Associates’ report, is the fact that the town “loses” an average of 58 percent of the water it pumps. During the past five years, the percent of lost water has peaked as high as 80 percent.

“We’ve been quite taken aback by all this,” said Donna Brewer, president of the Stonington Water Company, on Monday. “We knew it [the system] was ancient, but we were hoping it was in a better place than this.”

Water has gone missing in Maine’s lobster capital before: According to published reports, between October 2009 and January 2010, about 1.2 million gallons of water disappeared from the water company tanks.

The town recruited Olver Associates to study the system after reserves in the 50-foot storage tank dwindled to 15 feet in January, about one-third of its capacity. Town officials became worried that should a fire break out, the town wouldn’t have enough water to contain it.

The level had declined despite the fact that demand was at an annual low, as seasonal residents had left and summer businesses were closed. The report indicates that a confluence of factors, rather than one big problem, are causing the losses.

In February, Stone told the Bangor Daily News that he didn’t think the problems facing the water company were insurmountable. He said that while the town was missing water for the second time in recent memory, the water company had a handle on it.

It is unclear whether Stone resigned because of the dire conclusions of the Olver report, and the water company’s board of directors were charitable with comments about Stone after he left his post. Many said that Stone, the lone employee of the water company, was simply overwhelmed.

“Roger is a good person,” said Evelyn Duncan on Monday. “I think he tried very hard in all the years he worked for the water company. But at the present moment, there are a tremendous amount of things we should have been proactive in taking care of, that unfortunately either didn’t get taken care of or weren’t addressed at all.”

According to a written statement Duncan said she read aloud during a March meeting of the water company board of directors, she asked Stone why the scope of the system’s problems wasn’t brought to the board’s attention before.

“Our water company had no reason not to be aware of problems with our system,” she said. “Such things as meter calibration at the pump station, meter replacement at homes must have been discussed in at least some of the classes you have attended.

“The excessive water loss is at least partly caused by the age of our system, but I do not understand why it was never brought to the board so that we could have addressed it and tried to come up with a plan.”

Efforts Tuesday to contact Stone for comment were unsuccessful.

The Olver report showed that the water level reached its minimum in January after a power outage resulted in no water being pumped from the town’s two year-round wells. (Stonington uses six additional wells in the higher-demand summer months.)

A generator at the water plant should have kicked in to keep the wells running. Olver Associates said that during its review of the system’s infrastructure, engineers saw that the generator was in disrepair.

The report also indicated that water meters on customers’ properties had not been checked, calibrated or maintained often enough to ensure their accuracy.

“This could be the source of some of the unaccounted-for water. It could also represent a loss of revenue that the town needs to operate the water system,” the company wrote.

In the wake of Stone’s resignation, sanitary district operator Gay Atkinson has taken over the water superintendent duties until a replacement is found. On Monday, she reported about her first week to the water company’s board of directors.

She told the water company directors — who are all also town selectmen — that on Saturday she had to call in an emergency furnace repairman to fix the furnace in the pump house.

“I didn’t want to freeze the water system on my first weekend,” she said. The repairman “said the nozzle assembly was so bent out of whack that he didn’t know how it ever ran in the first place.”

Atkinson also urged the board to buy new chlorine and pH meters, which the board agreed to do as soon as possible.

According to the Olver Associates report, getting the water company’s infrastructure up to snuff could cost nearly $2 million, of which about $470,000 would cover short-term improvements that are needed as soon as possible. Those include upgrading flow meters, new generators, installation of telemetry systems, hydrologist evaluations and new equipment.

Long-term improvements include replacing old, leak-prone pipes with newer, more reliable lines.

The water company is exploring its funding options, including loan and grant applications, to begin the process of mending the town’s broken system. Last year, the water company spent about $141,000 and brought in $147,000. It’s possible that increased spending could necessitate a rate increase, but directors said Monday it’s too soon to tell.

“At this point, we’ve identified that we have problems, and we’re going to correct as much as we can as fast as we can,” Duncan said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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