VASSALBORO — When Josi Haskell turned on a faucet in her East Vassalboro home Thursday evening and noticed the water pressure was weak, she knew what to do. She grabbed some empty jugs and started filling them with water.

“It’s not uncommon to have low or no water — at least in the 15 years I’ve lived here — that’s been my experience,” she said. “We didn’t think much of it (on Thursday). I just filled the jugs and got ready.”

Haskell’s family of five is one of 82 customers served by the East Vassalboro Water Co. LLC, a private utility run by two environmental consultants.

“Saturday, I drove by Route 32 and saw a bunch of construction,” Haskell said. “I found out on Facebook that we weren’t going to have water for a while and that there was a leak they were fixing,” she said. “The company never contacted us at all.”

A truck passes China Lake along Route 32 in East Vassalboro on Tuesday. Residents along the roadway were required to boil their drinking water after a pipe broke.

With the help of Ranger Contracting Inc., out of Fairfield, officials determined that part of an underground pipe, first installed in 1969, had cracked after being bent and pressed on by a rock for about 50 years. In a few hours, it was fixed with a saddle patch, a permanent repair that involves rubber sealing the crack and steel hardware holding the rubber in place and making it immune to rust.

It was later on Saturday afternoon that East Vassalboro Water Co. co-owners Donald Robbins and Craig Winter hand-delivered boil water orders to all 82 households —  a total of 150-175 people — that their system serves.

The Kennebec Water District also provides drinking water in Vassalboro, serving about 200 customers, according to General Manager Roger Crouse, who said that most of the town’s residents are served by private wells. Vassalboro’s population is 4,347, according to a 2017 census estimate.

The flyer, a template adapted from the State of Maine Drinking Water Program, instructed customers of East Vassalboro Water Co. to “boil all water for one minute before drinking, making ice cubes, washing foods, brushing teeth or (participating) in any other activity involving consumption of water” due to the possibility of unsafe water. The notice was also posted in the East Vassalboro post office, grange hall and Quaker meeting house, according to Robbins.

The boil order was formally lifted around 4 p.m. Tuesday after samples from the system passed water quality tests done at Northeast Laboratory Services in Winslow. For more information on boil orders, go to www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/dwp/pws/drinkingWaterOrders.shtml.

Patrons at the East Vassalboro post office are informed Tuesday of a boil water order that was on display.

Robbins, a geologist, said he realized between 3 and 6 a.m. Saturday that the incident met the criteria necessary by law to require a boil order — the water pressure dropped below 20 pounds per square inch. But customers who doggedly called and emailed the company broke the news on Facebook first, prompting concern among some that they were being left out of the loop for as many as two days.

“That’s a normal time frame,” Robbins said of the initial Thursday night report of weak water pressure and the Saturday afternoon deliveries of boil orders. “We needed to understand and get a handle on things and get repairs going, but also that loss in pressure didn’t occur until between 3 and 6 a.m. Saturday. All the way from Thursday night, Friday and until  3-6 a.m. Saturday, the pressure was maintained at about 40 pounds per inch, which is well above the minimum. We didn’t realize we needed to do a boil order until Saturday morning when I saw that the pressure had gotten to just under 20 pounds per inch. The contractor was in the middle of digging the pipe up and making the patch, and immediately thereafter, I had to print off the 82 sheets and deliver them, just me and my business partner. We don’t have any employees.”

No one has reported any negative health-related concerns connected to a lag time in finding out about the boil order, and Tuesday’s tests showed that no bacteria entered the water pipes — Robbins added extra chlorine after the crack was repaired to make sure nothing harmful got to people’s faucets. But had people consumed the water without knowing to boil it Saturday through Tuesday and it did turn out to have bacteria from the soil, it could cause gastrointestinal issues.

“It wouldn’t be anything that was deadly, just a lot of diarrhea,” said Robbins, who lives in East Vassalboro and is a customer of the water company he co-owns. “For small infants or elderly people with compromised immune systems, it might be worse than that, but for the general person it would be an upset stomach and general discomfort.”

Meridith Cain, who administers the Vassalboro Community Events and Announcements Facebook page, said a resident reached out to her Friday stating that she inquired about the water pressure and received an email back notifying her of a “major leak on Route 32 near China Lake and that the water would be back on Saturday morning and it would be discolored and that there’s a mandatory water boil order and to spread the word.

“So that’s when I made the announcement in the group, because it wasn’t appropriate for it to be handled like that,” Cain said.

Robbins said that he was unaware of the email Cain mentioned and that the customer’s claim that a boil order would be in effect as early as Friday was inaccurate.

“I have a business partner, and I don’t know who he has talked to,” Robbins said. “He might have said we might need to issue a boil order.”

Haskell said that when issues and miscommunications like this come up with the small water company, she is “eight out of 10 annoyed,” but not enough to move out of the village. The weak water pressure this weekend was mostly just inconvenient.

“We prepare to lose water entirely because they’re an inconsistent company, but the water pressure being weak was kind of new,” she said. “This time it was particularly difficult because the pressure was low enough that you couldn’t take a shower. You could wash dishes, but you had to fill a bucket to do them. I got a load of laundry done, but it took like three hours.”

The East Vassalboro Water Co., which was started by Robbins’ great-grandfather in 1920, has been slow to adapt to technology, which bears on its ability to efficiently communicate with clients.

Haskell noted that last time there was a boil order, no one ever contacted her family that it was over. They were without water for eight days.

Robbins said that roughly half of his customers have Internet access, but only about five have shared their email address with the company which makes it difficult to announce news like boil orders — and the termination of them — digitally.

“We ask for (email addresses) when people apply for service, and it’s an inquiry we make on billing documents, but there is very, very little participation,” Robbins said. “Facebook seems to be one step ahead of us.”

Newly aware of the Vassalboro Community Events and Announcements Facebook page, Robbins said he planned to use the platform to inform customers that the boil order has been lifted. He also said he would directly call customers who he knows don’t have internet to inform them that the boil order has been lifted. Still, Haskell said the company has a ways to go in terms of improving customer relations.

The communication is always a difficult situation,” Haskell said, regarding the water company. “They literally didn’t even have a way to take credit cards until a year and a half ago. They have no website. It’s hard to find a phone number, and there is no technology or anything, so it would be pointless to try and find information out that way — they don’t use any sort of technology. It’s incredibly difficult to even call them and make a payment. Honestly I don’t even bother to pay quarterly; I pay yearly because they’re so difficult. I write a check and I put it in (Robbins’) mailbox. But there’s really only (82) houses. It’s a small town and kind of part of the arrangement. Out of all the utilities, they are the most difficult all around to deal with.

“Don Robbins is wonderful,” she added. “If you end up getting (his business partner), it’s very difficult. They’re abrupt and rude and treat you like a moron, saying things like, ‘Of course there’s a boil order for 24 hours after any time the water shuts off.’ Don is absolutely wonderful, but East Vassalboro Water Co. is notoriously difficult if you don’t talk to Don.”

Winter, Robbins’ business partner, did not respond to calls seeking a comment Tuesday and a message sent to the email address on his Brunswick-based consulting company’s website was bounced back.

This story was updated Jan. 30, 2020.


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