Saturday, May 25, 2024

The city’s Walter J. Sullivan Water Purification Facility in a screen capture from a Water Department video.

While Cambridge is using MWRA drinking water only until next year out of caution around the presence of chemicals, some city councillors want a conversation about whether the switch should be permanent.

A hearing around the chemicals known as PFAS and other water-quality issues was already on track to be held by the Health and Environment Committee in mid-October, said councillor Patty Nolan, author of the policy order calling for one. The hearing was delayed from this month to be sure key staff would be available.

An amendment by councillor Paul Toner on Monday sharpened the language, calling for a discussion of the chemicals, “overall water quality, the cost of operating our own water department, cost of MWRA vs. Cambridge Water Department and other appropriate factors.”

“The way this was written was a little too limited,” Toner said of the original order. “There’s a raging debate going on social media within the community about whether we should stay with Cambridge water.”

The issues raised by Toner’s amendment were already on the list of topics for city staff to address, Nolan said. The policy order was vaguer mainly because the hearing was already in the works, and scheduling a hearing can be done without an order. “The reason we put this on the agenda for tonight even though it’s just about holding a committee meeting is that this is an important topic,” Nolan said. “We felt it was important to let the entire community know that we had heard that concern. We understand that people want to be educated about it and want to understand what’s going on – they want to have a discussion about what’s happening with our water quality.”


The vote also gave councillors a chance to debunk some of the misinformation going around in town – if anyone was still tuned in toward the end of the six-hour meeting, the first one back after the council largely had July and August off.

“I got a call from someone today saying that she received an email that she needs to be boiling her water because of the contamination,” councillor Marc McGovern said.

Not only is there no need, because Cambridge is already switched over to MWRA water, but boiling would do nothing to clear away the chemicals, councillors rushed to say.

Chemicals in the water

The hazardous chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to a broad range of health effects, depending on exposure. Known as PFAS, the group of more than 1,000 chemicals has been used widely since the 1950s, they break down so slowly that they are known as “forever chemicals” and are found throughout the environment; most people also have them at some level in their blood.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 recommended a maximum level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water for two of the most common PFAS chemicals, a tiny amount, but recently signaled that it will reduce that to a limit of practically zero. In 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection set 20 parts per trillion as the limit.

“Twenty parts per trillion is one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and yet [environmental experts are] looking at whether even 20 might be too much,” Nolan said Monday.

Cambridge has long planned to filter water to stay ahead of rising environmental standards around PFAS, but supply chain problems have delayed installation, water officials said. On Aug. 26 a switch to drinking water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system was announced to start almost immediately.

The 61-city-and-town water system doesn’t have the same PFAS problem, and has been a backup for Cambridge before – notably during a 2016 drought, when the city’s water supply ran low, and in 2013 during piping upgrade and sewer separation projects. But Cambridge having its own water supply from the Hobbs Brook Reservoir in Waltham and the Stony Brook Reservoir in Weston and Waltham has also been a boon: In 2010, when 2 million residents of Greater Boston were without clean water for two days, Cantabrigians were unaffected.

Called for a switch

Councillor Quinton Zondervan has long pushed for a switch, one of several voices in the community with long-held complaints concerns about the water’s safety, expense and, with its high level of chlorides, quality. Residents say the extra minerals and calcium in the water tastes bad and wears out pipes, legendarily forcing Cambridge cafes to spend thousands of dollars extra annually to keep their coffee tasting good.

“I was certainly planning to bring forward a similar order myself,” Zondervan said, referring to Toner’s amendment and his wish to give residents a simple set of answers about their drinking water. “But the issue of cost is very nuanced and complicated. I share councillor Toner’s desire to have a simple FAQ, but I don’t even know if that’s possible at this point. A lot of our costs gets fed outside of our budget through grants and other funding sources that don’t make it into the water rates … it’s a really complicated and messy issue.”

The Quixotic efforts by Zondervan and residents such as Gary Mello have always been ignored or shut down over the years by city managers, but Monday was the first council meeting of new City Manager Yi-an Huang, the first such leader since the 1980s who hasn’t been a Cambridge City Hall insider.

Nolan’s order, with Toner’s amendment, was passed unanimously by the council.

Sue Reinert contributed to this report.