NORTH SMITHFIELD – The Town Council approved a settlement this week with Philips North America that will allow the company to connect homes with contaminated wells in Millville, Mass. to the Slatersville Water system.
As part of the agreement, Philips will provide the town of North Smithfield $260,000, to be used to connect 26 additional homes along Mechanic Street and Old Great Road to the municipal water supply.
The deal comes in response to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management’s determination that the business, which reportedly released oil into the ground at industrial sites in town many years ago, was potentially responsible for chemicals found in the wells in 2004, both in North Smithfield and later in the adjoining Massachusetts town. It may bring a final end to water issues that have concerned residents in one area of the Blackstone Valley for many years since.
But according to at least one councilor, the funding fell short of what the town could have gotten through negotiations and what the ratepayers in the Slatersville water system deserved.
“I am adamantly opposed to this agreement,” said Town Councilor John Beauregard during a 3-2 vote approving the settlement Monday night. “I think this is a bad deal for the town and a worse deal for the ratepayers.”
According to the terms of the deal approved by councilors on Monday, May 1, homes at 3, 19 and 25 Providence Street in Millville will be connected to the municipal water supply, and Philips will make a payment to enable the town to also connect eligible properties in North Smithfield.
Slatersville water lines were extended to the area of town, which includes Mechanic Street and Old Great Road, in 2020 with the help of a $1.4 million loan from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The project, first moved forward under former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, extended service to some 46 homes and was later recognized for, “Excellence in Public Health Protection,” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“You have to applaud the prior administration for putting in the water line,” said Councilor Douglas Osier in discussing the resolution, negotiated in executive session over the past several months, with NRI NOW.
But only a handful of residents have tied in to the new line, with the burden to connect houses to water provided at the roadway estimated at around $10,000 per home on average.
Now, the town will offer to finance connections for properties close to the wells where contamination has already been detected. The agreement includes a, “performance premium,” under which the town receives extra funding of up to $40,000 if agreements are signed with 15 or more homeowners by the deadline of June 30, 2025.
And Philips will pay for closure of the private wells currently serving the eligible properties.
“I think it’s a great deal, because we worked together with Philips,” said Council President Kimberly Alves. “We were able to bring water to residents in Millville, and also help our residents at the same time.”
Beauregard told NRI NOW that initially, he and other town officials hoped to get Philips to not only finance the additional North Smithfield connections, but also to pay back money the town still owes for the 2020 water line extension. The state agency forgave a portion of the $1.4 million infrastructure loan, but $550,000 still remains, a burden that falls on Slatersville’s roughly 580 water users.
“This is a worldwide, multimillion dollar company, and they’re putting the burden on these ratepayers,” Beauregard said.
He noted that the town was in a good position to negotiate a better deal because it was in Philip’s best interest to hook up the Millville homes with North Smithfield, alleviating the burden of working with Mass. DEP and the need for future well monitoring.
“That’s the negotiating process,” Beauregard said. “I was so frustrated. It was an unfortunate deal for the town, and a very bad deal for the ratepayers.”
Philips, which conducted metals plating and branding at a 35-acre parcel on Industrial Drive between 1977 and 1990, has been voluntarily working on the solution in conjunction with the Massachusetts agency, along with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Trichloroethylene, Tetrachloroethylene and Freon 113 were detected in wells supplying drinking water to three Millville homes in 2015.
The councilor also expressed concern that if the town hits ledge or runs into construction setbacks, the cost to hook up the homes could exceed the $260,000.
Councilor Claire O’Hara cast the only other dissenting vote on Monday.
But Alves told NRI NOW that councilors discussed the expense with the Water Department, and she felt comfortable with the figure.
“There may be residents who don’t want to tie in,” she added.
Osier noted that Philips was one of two parties deemed potentially responsible for the two-town contamination, but the only one at the negotiating table. PT Property Holdings, LLC aka Polytop, has reportedly not cooperated with MassDEP to perform response action.
“It was clear they didn’t want to go the litigation route, and neither did the town,” Osier said of Philips. “We negotiated everything we could. Philips very well could have walked away from a deal. You can’t use residents as leverage in a negotiation.”
Osier noted that the agreement also doesn’t prevent the town from going back to the company if more problemed wells are discovered in town.
“It did not release Philips from liability for contamination found in the future,” he said. “I would never sign a deal where the town couldn’t go back.”
“They are exhibiting that they are a good neighbor,” Alves agreed.
According to Mass. DEP, the project will extend an 8 inch main water line approximately 750 feet from its current end at Old Great Road. The line extension and connections to the residential Millville buildings will likely be completed within 60 days after construction has started.
“I think it’s a win for the residents,” said Osier. “They’re going to be able to get clean drinking water.”