Durham Nears End of a Three-Decade-Old Effort to Address Water Pollution

First Selectwoman Laura Francis predicts upside for development with new water supply

DURHAM — A decades-long effort to bring clean water to local residents with wells contaminated by two former metal box manufacturers on Main Street is expected to be completed this fall, bringing a life-changing and long-needed supply of clean water to the area, and leaving the town to manage an expanded water company.

The $24 million project ran nearly six miles of water main pipes to connect about 120 homes and businesses in the Durham Meadows Superfund site to the Middletown water supply – more than doubling the customer base of Durham’s small municipal-owned water company of about 80 customers, said First Selectwoman Laura Francis.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the EPA have been working to address contamination since 1989. 

Chemical solvents used by Durham Manufacturing Company and the former Merriam Manufacturing Company on Main Street contaminated 50 private wells, according to the EPA. Contamination with the chemical trichloroethene has been measured as high as 1,400 parts per billion – greatly exceeding EPA limits of 5 parts per billion.

The EPA removed contaminated soil in 2012, and performed a number of studies between 2006 and 2018 to identify the best source of water for the Durham residents, who have relied on filters and bottled water as they await an alternate source of clean water.

Francis said the last pieces of the project are being completed now, and that the water could be turned on in October or early November.

“Think about the worry one must feel that, even with a filtration system, you know that something can seep through those protective measures and expose your body to a potentially harmful element,” Francis said. “To have that go away is, I want to say, transformational in people’s lives. It’s going to increase health and well being, it’s going to increase property values, and it’s going to lift the stigma that this town has lived under for more than three decades.”

The project will supply residents, businesses and facilities in the area – including Coginchaug Regional High School, Strong Middle School and the Durham Fairgrounds – a much needed source of clean water.

The new water main from Middletown is also paving the way for an expansion of Durham’s small water system.

Francis said she has already received a “partial commitment” for $3.4 million in federal funding to expand the system further, and the town has planned more potential expansions to up to six areas of Durham with issues of quantity or quality of drinking water. In total, those expansions would cost about $12 million, something Francis said she’s working to fund.

Francis said that in addition to bringing clean water to more areas of town, expanded water service could aid development.

“The owner will have more flexibility in the kind of septic system that they could install and maintain, without having to worry about the proximity of the well,” Francis said. “So it’s not going to be as transformational as sewers would be in terms of development, but it will help.”

How much does it cost to maintain a water system?

About two decades ago, Durham acquired a small, failing water company, serving about 80 customers in and around the town center, said Francis.

The small company has stayed afloat for the last 14 years without any rate increase, meeting its expenses without really putting away money for emergencies or capital improvements. That will end this year, as the company has proposed to raise rates by 10 percent to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the expanded system, and for the cost of the Middletown water supply.

Francis said the 10 percent increase was meant only to meet the additional costs of the expansion based on estimates of water usage by the new customers, and that the company doesn’t make a profit, and doesn’t pay for town staff.

But it’s expensive to run a water system, and the economics of running a small water system are especially difficult.

Francis said she expects at some point there will be discussions about asking a larger water company like Connecticut Water or Aquarion to acquire the town’s system, but those discussions haven’t happened yet.

“Those bigger companies are buying up small water companies all over the state,” Francis said. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”

In the meantime, Francis said she expects the added service will make the current system more financially viable.

“The rule of thumb is, the more customers you can spread out the cost of a system to, the better,” Francis said. “That’s why you might find bigger systems with more favorable rates, because they get to divide their fixed costs over a larger base.”

Latest from Brendan Crowley