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Back in mid-March, Suez Water sent its 20,000 customers throughout South County a public notice detailing a recent water contamination at the University of Rhode Island. The letter, which referred to a contamination issue that was addressed weeks earlier, was widely discussed on social media by residents who said the company provided ‘confusing’ information, a problem Suez said this week it plans to address in a follow-up letter coming soon.

Suez Water RI and the state Department of Health, following The Independent’s review of public notices about recent water contamination, acknowledged this week that their communication to customers and the public was inadequate.

“Customers may have been confused by, or misinterpreted, the PN (public notification) that was sent,” said Annemarie Beardsworth, state Department of Public Health spokesperson.

In an email, Suez spokesperson Bill Madden said, “We are working closely with the Rhode Island Department of Health to re-issue letters to our customers regarding the recent exceedance of trihalomethanes (TTHM).”

A confusing notice, sent almost 30 days after a violation was issued on March 1, said a contamination problem was solved in mid-March. Nonetheless, the notice still advised that some potential health risks existed for infants, the elderly, those pregnant and others with various health conditions.

The notice also said that “There is nothing you need to do.”

It left some people bewildered, with one area resident calling the mailed notice “alarming.”

The Independent this week reviewed the steps in public notification that are required by law, the notice that was mailed to the water system’s 20,000 customers and the company’s social media explanations about the extent of the contamination problem.

“We understand that letter you received did not include some of the background and contextual information that would have been helpful. We did provide feedback to the Suez Water System,” Beardsworth told The Independent.

Even though Suez Water RI, which serves customers in Narragansett and South Kingstown and at the University of Rhode Island, has solved the recent water contamination problem, there is still confusion among some residents who say the company warned them too late and gave them too little information.

The company in late March sent letters to customers notifying them of potential water contamination found during testing from October last year to the end of December.

The letter also generated much customer discussion on Facebook. One area resident called the mailed notice “alarming,” especially given that a company official put more information on a Facebook post than what was explained in the company’s letter to customers.

“At the end of the day,” wrote a Facebook poster identified as Nicoletta Nicole, “a Facebook post is not the official word from Suez and (if) there were any health effects on my kids it would be pretty stupid to say, ‘I got the scary letter, but made decisions based on the Facebook post.’”

She added, “Just wondering why Suez can’t take five minutes to copy and paste more specific information into that template and then print and send.”

A company spokesperson and office manager, Carol Cronin, blamed the confusing message on a state requirement to follow a form letter. The state DOH disputed that claim on Tuesday, saying that the company can include other information beyond what the state requires.

The Problem

Tests showed slightly higher-than-allowed amounts of trihalomethanes, referred to as TTHM. These are a group of disinfection byproducts that form when chlorine compounds used to disinfect  water  react with other naturally occurring chemicals in the  water. They are colorless and will evaporate out of the  water and  into the air.

While the company’s letter referred to the high amounts in its water system, Cronin said the company only found slightly higher levels in a sealed-off area inside the University of Rhode Island’s private water system Suez feeds.

The same tests in 12 other locations for residential and commercial areas serving parts of South Kingstown and Narragansett did not show any elevated levels, Cronin said.

The company sent letters to customers around March 24. The letter waved off immediate action and said if the water becomes unsafe to drink, the company would notify customers within 24 hours.

However, concern about the water quality was high enough that the company, in that same letter, was required by federal policy to warn about potential health risks.

It said that anyone drinking their water who is pregnant, has certain health conditions, is elderly, or is the caretaker of an infant “should seek advice from your health care providers about drinking this water.”

Then, in a confusing twist, a few paragraphs later the company wrote that it had solved the issue nine days earlier. “We are back in compliance as of March 16, 2021 based on our latest testing results,” the letter said.

Office manager Cronin on March 25 added a fuller explanation on Facebook’s “Our Town South Kingstown” group to explain what the letter did not.

“I wanted to come forward with the explanation so there is no panic or rumors,” she wrote. “The sample that came back with a chemical level slightly over was taken at the Narragansett Bay Campus.”

She explained, “This is a location where Suez hands off the water and the Campus runs their own internal water system.”

“The issue was contained to that small section of the system, due to the presence of a backflow prevention device there was no way for that water to come back into the main distribution system however we are required to send it to our entire population,” she wrote.

“Samples taken since are back to normal levels. I hope this information is helpful,” Cronin added.

Customer Reaction

Many people replied with thanks for giving more details. Michaela Cashman wrote, “The initial post made me think it would be something more alarming. Glad it wasn’t.”

Others, however, were more upset.

Kayla Carter wrote, “I am late to the news from Suez regarding our drinking water AGAIN. The letter is ridiculous in so many ways and I won’t get into my opinion about SUEZ…I highly suggest anyone who has town water to have a different system in place to protect yourselves and your family.”

Shannon Lynne said that she believed “there is no recourse for poor water quality and incidents of unsafe or unhealthy levels of chemicals. Where I live in Narragansett we used to have decent tasting water now it takes like chlorine and every now and again they tell us it’s not safe to drink?”

Facebook poster Nicoletta Nicole who read Cronin’s Facebook explanation wanted to know why the company did not have more direct outreach to all customers with more details.

“Carol Cronin, couldn’t the letter have been amended to include all this specific information? I understand you are required to notify customers of this, but the letter tells me to call my health care provider if I have an infant, which is somewhat alarming,” she said.

Cronin tossed the ball to the state Department of Health.

“The letter is written by the state not by Suez,” Cronin replied. “It is the same letter used for all of the water companies in Rhode Island … There is a protocol that must be followed that is no deviation from that protocol.”

Suez’s Madden told The Independent Tuesday that the water company’s “initial exceedance letter followed a state-mandated format.”

State DOH Spokeswoman Beardsworth pointed out that the state does not have a format for these public notices.

Customer Nicole pushed on the issue a bit further on Facebook with Cronin.

“Lots of companies do more than the bare minimum of their own prerogative... I’m just wondering why I see all this detail on Facebook instead of in a letter from Suez. Seems simple to send a letter with this info to keep everyone calm and to bolster confidence in Suez. I imagine they’re fielding lots of phone calls.”

Cronin pointed out that she received about a dozen and that the company had already spent $7,000 on one mailing. It’s “not really feasible to do it again, we opted to field the calls as they came in.”

She added, “I understand the interpretation that lots of companies do more than bare minimum in your words, but perhaps they are not regulated companies that have to follow a tariff. Town of Narragansett sends this same letter every quarter and nothing more either.”

The Contaminant

Company test results from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 last year showed that “our system exceeded standards” for the maximum  contaminant levels for TTHM, the company said in the letter to customers.

The safe standard is 0.080 mg/L, but for only that period a test at the Bay Campus showed 0.083 mg/L, according to Cronin, even though the letter said the system exceeded the standards.

DOH’s Beardsworth said that although the contaminants only exceeded allowable levels in the part of the system that serves URI’s Bay Campus, “it is important for all customers to be aware of what is happening with their water system.”

The Suez notice, though, did not mention the issue was restricted only to the URI Bay Campus. She also said that Suez had 30 days to notify their customers. URI officials referred all questions to Suez since it operates a chlorination booster that could have caused the problem.

Beardsworth explained further that the notice to the public — since anyone could be drinking the water anywhere — had certain explanations the company needed to include, but a company can opt to add more.

She said the required content is:

Description of the violation or situation.

When the violation occurred.

Any potential adverse health effects from the violation.

Any population at risk.

Whether alternative supplies should be used (bottled water or boil water notice).

What actions customers should take.

What the public water supply company is doing to correct the situation.

When the company expects to return to compliance or resolve the situation.

Name and contact information for company.

Statement to encourage sharing the public notice with other customers.

Levels of TTHM generally increase in the summer due to warmer temperatures, but they can also be affected by seasonal changes in source water quality or by changing amounts of disinfection added.

Chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water.  Disinfection of water supplies is necessary to prevent illness from waterborne disease causing bacteria and required by federal and state policies.

Water systems often can experience temporary increases in TTHM due to short-term increases in chlorine disinfection.   

Chlorine disinfection increases can occur when there is a water main break, when water systems are under repair, or when there is a potential microbial problem or threat.

All water systems that use chlorine to disinfect the water are required by federal and state law to sample for TTHM on a regular basis, such as once every three months.

The TTHM mc/L is set at a level that balances  the immediate risk of bacterial contamination should the water not be adequately disinfected. Federal and state requirements set an mc/L for TTHM of  80 parts per billion (ppb) or micrograms per liter (ug/L)  as an annual average.   

Federal and state compliance with the mc/L requires that the running annual average of four samples, such as once every three months over a year, at various locations not exceed the standard.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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