PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary

(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY, JULY 14, 2014) — THE PLANET has learned new information about the recent sewage spill into the Housatonic River and adjacent farm land at the water department treatment plant on Industrial Drive off of Holmes Road.

Some of the information confirms what we earlier reported, some adds details to what we reported, and some is new information. In this updated version of events, obtained from a pastiche of sources, water superintendent Carl Shaw was faced with a tough decision on the evening-morning of June 26-27, the night of the torrential downpour.

First, some backgrounder from this layman who went to school in H2O with expert teachers.

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Updates and then a Lag

Aerial view of the Pittsfield Water Treatment Facility

Once upon a time, Pittsfield had no official water treatment station. The city first began treating its water in 1902, when the first plant was built roughly in the same location where it is now. As advances in municipal water treatment hit the market, the city went through a series of upgrades, in 1915, 1936-37, 1963, 1975-76, 1985, and 1989. Each incorporated new technology. At some point, however, the city fell far behind in maintenance required to keep a municipal waste-water and treatment system operating at its best practical efficiency.

If you think about it, the sewer system is buried, and the treatment plant rests on a bucolic piece of land about four miles from downtown — Out of sight, out of mind, and out of the budgeting process. Thus, while Pittsfield year after year caved into its public employee unions, particularly in the school department, not enough money went into the hidden but vital function of water, particularly with regard to its sewer lines.

A Hobson’s Choice, and It Had Nothing to Do with Butch

Shaw, as waste water superintendent, is in charge of the plant. Seven sewage pumping stations throughout the city augment the main plant. Overflows, sources say, have been occurring since the 1960s.

When you have heavy rain, the increase in water flow to the treatment plant can overcharge the city’s sewer lines. When the flow to the main sewer pumps in the Pump and Power Building exceeds the capacity of the pumps, the sewer gate has to come down. If not, the building floods. Planet operators also have to be concerned about the aeration tanks and secondary clarifier system. On the other hand, the operator must not lower the sewer gate too soon, which would substantially cut short the plant’s ability to process flow. When heavy rain comes, the decision to lower the gate or not and when is crucial and requires a tricky balancing act for operators.

Compounding the problem is the patch-work nature of the sewer lines themselves. Some of Pittsfield’s sewers date back to the late 19th century, the kind of brickwork one would associate with Jack the Ripper‘s foggy-dew London.

On an average day, the water plant processes an average of 12 million gallons. Sources say, though, that during downpours, snowmelt, or other unusual wet weather, that flow can go from six million gallons to 25 million in five or six hours. Naturally, heavy rains of the kind that came through Pittsfield on June 26-27 will result in flow surge.

At that point, sources say, the manager at the plant has to make a Hobson’s Choice, where neither option is ideal but where circumstances will dictate which one is less objectionable. The manager can order the main sewer gate to be lowered or let the overflow reach the plant. The main sewer gate at the water plant is a 72-inch main sewer line that comes into the wastewater treatment plant enters from the north. It passes through a main sewer gate in the Pump and Power building. The gate is kind of a last resort to be used when events surcharge the line. If the operator judges the overflow will endanger the Pump and Power Building, the gate should be lowered.

“The superintendent has to make a decision,” as one source put it. “Does he put the gate down [to reduce inflow] or take a chance of losing the pump and power building?”

The state EPA has set a flow ceiling limit of 28.7 million gallons, although sources familiar with plant operations say that limit is sometimes ignored so workers can pump as much water as possible to prevent overflows. Pumping too much water, though, risks “washing out the upper end” of the plant. Essentially, that jeopardizes the three aeration tanks in the plant, two of which run in low-flow conditions and the third in high flow. The tanks carry colonies of bacteria that convert ammonia from run-off water into nitrates and nitrites. This keep harmful ammonia out of the Housatonic River.

Was There Negligence? That’s a Question for the EPA

To the all important question: Did the manager at the plant at the time of the June 26-27 downpour do anything wrong? Could alternative actions that weren’t taken have prevented the overflow?

We put this question to our water experts. Each said that, since they lacked primary information and are not privy to the state’s investigation of the event, they couldn’t be sure. They tended to think, though, that Shaw did the best he could with what he had.

One source put it this way: “Keeping in mind that if you’re not actually there at the time, you can’t know for sure what happened, I don’t think it was negligence on Carl Shaw’s part. When you get storm surges, you have to do the best you can to protect the lower buildings. Offices for the water department are located there, as well as the pump and power buildings on the north side of the facility. Nobody wants an overflow.”

As THE PLANET has reported, the sewer overflow has been reported to the state Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has begun an investigation. We also learned that in the event of an “SSO” — sanitary sewer overflow — the city is required to notify the federal Department of Environmental Protection. THE PLANET has not confirmed that the DEP was notified, though it appears to be the case.

Sources agree that immediate causes of the most recent overflow aside, the underlying causes stem back to lack of proper maintenance over time. Simply put, the sewer lines are too old, and for years, the city didn’t do enough to address the situation.

What would have been a lesser problem to fix then has become a bigger one now. An I & I study (inflow and infiltration) done about seven years ago identified areas in the city with I & I higher than normal. Sources say the city has been slow to implement the recommendations. The city is now trying to implement sewer-system improvements, with some of the work slated for this year. Is that work enough?

THE PLANET also learned that the “farm land” affected by the recent overflow does not include Abby Farm off Holmes Road. Actually, the state owns what used to be the affected farmland, which lies closer to the planet. The Commonwealth is responsible for the land management there, which would explain its keen interest in the latest overflow event.

In fairness to Shaw, at this point, it appears that Mother Nature caught him in her fury and gave the city’s antiquated sewer lines too much, too soon. That’s the best information we have about the June 26-27 overflow. The state’s investigation into the event will likely produce a more definitive verdict.

‘The Politicization of Water’ : Pittsfield public utilities boss Bruce Collingwood, left, and Jeffrey Simon of Mass Recovery, in front of “The Tower” at the city’s water treatment plant. (Photo iBerkshires)

In Pittsfield, Water, Too, Is Politics

One other observation can be safely offered at this point. In Pittsfield, water, like just about everything else, is a political commodity first, before it can be anything else.

One hears accusations from all sides about the building of the plant, the maintenance, the management there, the workers, and everything else related to operations or policy. This can stand as the exemplification of the territorialism and turf wars that have vexed the city for a generation, with no end in sight.

What should be a straightforward event amenable to straightforward reporting becomes an inkblot test among competing narratives. With respect to the decisions made on June 26-27, and more strategically in the long term, at the head of this melodrama of competing versions stands the city’s public works director, Bruce Collingwood.

Fans says he’s the best thing to hit Pittsfield since George “Boomer” Scott in 1965. Foes blame him for many of the woes they say have been all too common in the delivery of the services that operate through Pittsfield public works system. Which is it?

There can be no doubt that the “politicization of water” stands as the biggest factor in keeping the city’s handling of this life-giving material from being remotely as good as it can be.


(THREE STOOGES, PLAYING POKER) LARRY: “I’ll take two.” MOE: “You can’t have two, porcupine, but I can give you five.” (MORE SLAPS LARRY ACROSS THE KISSER)Moe Howard and Larry Fine, in a delightfully generic (or should be say “classic” or “iconic”) Stooges gag, used well more than once.






  1. Ed Norton
    July 14, 2014 at 4:38 am #

    Hey Ralphie Boy,

    We have a saying down in the sewer, “Be kind to the people you meet on the way down, because you’re going to meet the same people on the way up.”

    • danvalenti
      July 14, 2014 at 7:16 am #

      “Don’t be a Weisenheimer, Norton.”

    • Alice
      July 14, 2014 at 8:50 am #

      I love you Ed and Ralphie, you too Dan.

  2. Spider
    July 14, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    Since our waste water treatment plant is antiquated and has not been properly maintained, would the same be true of our drinking water system?

    Makes me wonder just how safe it is to drink from the tap! And would the city level with us about any possible dangers?

    • Dances with rain
      July 14, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

      If you drink Pittsfield water directly from the tap with no filters, you are certifiably insane.

  3. Pittsfield proud
    July 14, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    I don’t underestimate your intelligence dan. But that is a pretty discriptive article on the Wastewater treatment plant.The article does a great job of explaining what to do in a high flow situation. Does not explain the actions that were taken the day before, night of, and day after the storm. Just some food for thought.
    Thank you.

  4. G Gordon
    July 14, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    Hi Dan. Love your site. A little off topic but has to do with the continued downward spiral of the Berkshire eagle. I could not help but laugh at today’s editorial, stating the majority of Americans believe obamacare is working. The eagle cites a non partisan firm for the study. I then went on to read the comments and someone actually pointed out how the people that run this firm either worked for Obama or gave him significant amounts of money. Now assuming an average person can easily find this information out, would you have not thought the editor could have done a little homework?

    Thanks Dan for all you do.

  5. Ron Kitterman
    July 14, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    Fascinating piece on Pittsfield’s water I read an old Eagle article from 1902, where the city Fathers were considering using that body of water for a water supply. But, you forgot to mention Dr. Milos Krofta and the good work from Krofta, hopefully one of your readers can bring additional information to us. But, Keep up the good work!!

  6. Chuck Vincelette
    July 14, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Excellent article on the sewer treatment plant. Very informative.

  7. C.J.
    July 14, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Traveling regularly on Silver Lake Blvd, I notced the catch basin and spill way behind Mountain One has collasped or washed out again. This has happened several times and been repaired by different contractors. It is part of PEDA and is monitored by the DEP. When I asked PEDA, I was told this catch basin is handling way beyond the capacity it was designed for because the city didn’t budget storm water/sewer repairs for the Morningside area and instead this PEDA catch basin is handling storm water from an additional 100 acres of city streets, sidewalks, etc., putting it way beyond capacity, not to mention additional salt, grease, chemicals,etc. from city storm water.The city deliberately directed this run off as an option to making proper repairs.

  8. C.J.
    July 14, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Traveling regularly on Silver Lake Blvd, I notced the catch basin and spill way behind Mountain One has collasped or washed out again. This has happened several times and been repaired by different contractors. It is part of PEDA and is monitored by the DEP. When I asked PEDA, I was told this catch basin is handling way beyond the capacity it was designed for because the city didn’t budget storm water/sewer repairs for the Morningside area and instead this PEDA catch basin is handling storm water from an additional 100 acres of city streets, sidewalks, etc., putting it way beyond capacity, not to mention additional salt, grease, chemicals,etc. from city storm water.The city deliberately directed this run off as an option to making proper repairs.

  9. RidX
    July 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    So shiny new yellow school buses and a new High school is more important than water?

    Residents are dependent on these pumps working to pump the sewage down to the treatment plant? What would happen in an economic collapse or power grid catastrophe?

    If the money or the power stops flowing, so does the raw sewage. Guess what happens then? It backs up into all your plumbing. If you live at the bottom of one these Berkshire Hills, you will be first to experience this.

    Would it not be wise to install a shut off valve on your outgoing sewer pipe leaving your home? In the event that outhouses make a come back or porta-potty / septic systems are needed, is it not better to follow the motto of the boy-scouts and “be prepared”?

  10. dusty
    July 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    Curious to know just how many millions we have poured into this antiquated system in just the last 15 years. I know it is a bunch. I thought there was supposedly all this state mandated updating going on and that is why our water and sewer taxes were skyrocketing. Is the money going somewhere else? Like say, kickbacks or sumptin?

  11. Winchester 73
    July 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    Dr Milos Krofta designed and built the Pittsfield water facility in the mid-80s. It’s gotta be between 25-30 yrs old. When built it achieved nationwide praise. From what I gather it’s still providing top notch drinking water.

    One of the few decisions Pittsfield got right. Sewer upgrade though as DV points out have lagged far behind. City didnt invest in infrastructure. Taxed residents to death and gave the $$ to the fat cats in the inside.

    • Payroll Patriot
      July 14, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      The beavers were responsible for Krofta’s upgrade or did someone not turn the right shut off valve? Bill, where are you?

  12. Scott
    July 14, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

    The mayor was proposing a new water filtration system. Then all I’ve heard about is a new police, school and school busses. Pitts water has an awful taste. Don’t drink the water! You’d be better off drinking directly from sackett brook or oct mountain spring. It’s a shame cause the water coming from Ashlee brook before the resivoir is pretty prestine.

    • danvalenti
      July 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      The mayor was talking a $70-80 million water upgrade. The engineers who designed and built the Krofta system say they can do it for $12-$15 million. Saving $60 million or so might be worth looking into, but from what I hear, Bianchi threw them out of his office and has barred them from the plant.

      • Scott
        July 14, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

        Interesting i wonder if he shook his finger in thier faces and made insensitive comments. Money is a whole lot easier to spend when it’s someone else’s.

      • Tim
        July 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

        Are these the same guys who got the bum’s rush from Ruberto? Maybe there’s a reason.

  13. amandaWell
    July 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

    I have had my water tested and it is fine. With that being said I will not drink it unless it is filtered. On another front, Israel should be reprimanded by NATO. What do you call killing Children? Stop this now!

    • levitan
      July 14, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

      What do you call killing Children

      I don’t know. Do we have a Hamas representative on hand to explain abduction and murder of teenagers?

    • Mad Trapper
      July 15, 2014 at 5:50 am #

      Amanda, please move to a nation governed by Sharia. Your face will be covered and your mouth kept shut.

    • Johnny2Shoes
      July 15, 2014 at 8:34 am #

      And while NATO is at it, they should reprimand those who dress up children with vests loaded with explosives and send them off to die. Maybe instead of using aid money for terrorist schools and weapons to attack Israel they should use the cash for the better of the people. They don’t want peace,land etc. they want the destruction of Israel and only that will do.

  14. amandaWell
    July 14, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    I think my point was very clear.

    • levitan
      July 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      Forget about the Muslim Brotherhood’s Coompendium of Terror then since you have boned up on it.

      Is Israel a member of NATO? Did Israel attack a NATO nation?

  15. amandaWell
    July 15, 2014 at 4:56 am #

    I was watching the Krol Show, and a guest said it was wonderful working with delicious group of young people? What the hell does that mean?

    • Hurdygurdy Man
      July 15, 2014 at 5:42 am #

      That was Jake or Jive, as he is known. I won’t dare guess what that means!!. Both madly in love with wicked expensive notneeded school. We suckers getting sucked in again.

  16. Mad Trapper
    July 15, 2014 at 6:02 am #

    Dan, I remember that manhole blowing in the 1980s, geyser 15ft tall of raw sewage. Adjacent land to the river covered in filth, with TP and Tampoons hanging from the trees. City made no effort at cleanup at all.

    I expect the most recent filth would have been ignored if you hadn’t “made a STINK” about it.

    Does Pittsfield ever notify the public downstream when their foul spoor is flowing into the river? Was Lenox, Lee, and/or Stockbridge notified?