Contaminated Trust in Falmouth

We should have listened to Guido

Guido saw this day coming.  He may have been a butcher by trade and a strawberry farmer and muskrat trapper by avocation, but Guido Baroncelli knew what he was talking about.

As the founder and original sponsor of Falmouth's "pooper scooper" bylaw, my grandfather used to admonish me about the potential for animal waste to contaminate our water supply.  "Some day, all that crap is going into Long Pond, y'know," he would quip as he reclined in his char, fiddled with his hearing aid and gnawed for hours on a two-day old piece of bread.  His complaints hit a fever pitch the year he was seen with a snow shovel cleaning up Main Street after the Clydesdales clomped by during the Christmas parade, and he pleaded with me to do something official about it.  After I procrastinated sufficiently, Guido decided to do something about it himself.  He came to a Selectmen's meeting, proposed an article for a Town Meeting warrant, and our pooper scooper bylaw was born. 

Now I know that the wayward aftermath of Kibbles ‘n Bits is not the direct cause of our current water woes, but I'm willing to bet that the rising waters this spring and the animal waste that dots the landscape around our surface water supply at Long Pond was most certainly a contributing factor.  We should have listened more to Guido and cleaned up our mess.

And what a mess it is.  I first learned about the boil water order as I stopped in the Tedeschi's at the Bourne Rotary on the way home from a long day at work.  A woman was buying a couple of gallons and offered to the uninterested clerk, "This is for my Mom.  The water in Falmouth is contaminated."    I stopped with a start at that revelation, grabbed a couple of gallons myself, and listened intently.  The information I received from that woman at a convenience store in another community is still the most I've heard on the subject.  When I got home, I checked the town website - nothing.  I waited for a reverse-911 call that didn't come.  Jim Cummings has an efficient and dedicated operation for those calls, but the request to the Sheriff from Town Hall came well after it should have, leaving thousands of residents uninformed and worried. The School Department, who does an excellent job of outreach and dials a robo-call when someone stubs their toe at FHS, didn't call either.  I was beginning to wonder if former Selectmen were eliminated from the public information list so that Virginia and I wouldn't ask questions.

Kidding aside, the discovery of elevated levels of a very serious bacteria in our public water supply is a grave public health issue, but  the woeful, bungled and bumbled efforts of our appointed and elected leaders to share information was the real failure here.  An elevated coliform level in drinking water, although troubling, is an unfortunate but not uncommon occurrence.  It is very disconcerting, though, and requires direct, open, and constant communication to educate and soothe a justifiably concerned public.  The first positive test was on June 7th.  On Monday night, June 14th, one week later, the public and press were reassured and told that there was no problem with the water, when our Selectmen and Town Manager knew that was not the case.  More than contaminated water, contaminated trust can harm our community.   Who's watching the watchers?  Only when the Department of Environmental Protection gave the boil water order did the town initiate its sluggish response.

I learned more about this issue from friends on Facebook than I still have from Town Hall.  Check the Charter, our blueprint for government in Falmouth - The Selectmen are vested with the power and authority of the former Board of Public Works.  Where have they been during this public health crisis?  A meeting at 5PM tonight is too little, too late.  The Town Manager offered assurances on Monday night that the water just smelled funny but was ok to drink.  What was he thinking?

Maybe Guido should have put some effort into a bylaw mandating common sense in Town Hall.  It probably wouldn't have passed.

This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.

 

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