A smelly problem near Silver Lake

  • Pooling water between Silver Lake and the cemetery could be the source of an unpleasant odor over the last month. A rust-colored growth can be seen in the water growing on the rocks and submerged tree trunks. —Sarah Robertson

Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2019 10:00:11 PM

ATHOL — A mysterious odor stewing around Silver Lake has neighbors worried about the health of the town’s only natural spring-fed waterbody, the local government checking sewer lines, and state officials investigating the source of the stench.

Walking her dog around Silver Lake Park early last month, Athol resident Mary Roberts noticed a sewage-like smell, seemingly coming from a shallow pond of stagnant water between Silver Lake Park and the cemetery. On Dec. 30 she smelled it again from the front door of her house on Lenox Street, so she reached out to town officials. 

Richard Kilhart, assistant superintendent for the Athol Department of Public works, said the problem likely stems from the abnormal amount of rain this season.

“We have had a tremendous amount of stormwater runoff, more than anyone can remember,” Kilhart said. “When you have the kind of runoff and rain and stormwater we have had in this particular season, things tend to look differently than they have in the past.”

Upon investigating the DPW found no external source of tainted runoff, with all sewer lines intact and no potential for leaking septic systems nearby. They suspect the smell is coming from a naturally occurring bacteria growing in the stagnant water. A cloudy rust-colored growth lines the bottom of the unintentional pond, covering the rocks and submerged tree trunks. 

“It’s nature being nature,” Kilhart said. “There really isn’t much we can do to control that.”

The smell seems to be coming from an impoundment of water in a low-lying wooded area between the cemetery and Silver Lake. Roberts said the smelly water is making its way into Silver Lake as it washes over the road, clearly visible when walking around the park. Silver Lake is the town’s only isolated, naturally spring-fed waterbody, with no streams leading in or out of the pond. 

One potential solution to the problem involves dredging, clearing and filling the recessed area near the pond to prevent pooling, Kilhart said. However, this is a costly and cumbersome approach that would destroy the existing trees and vegetation. 

“There’s lots of permitting that goes into stuff like that,” Kilhart said.

Catherine Skiba, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), said that a representative from the office would visit the site soon. When contacted by MassDEP about the issue, the Athol DPW said they were aware of the issue and working with the Board of Health to address it. An unnamed Athol resident left a message with the DEP office in Springfield informing them of the issue in December, according to Skiba.

“We sympathize with the folks that are in that area that walk their dogs in the cemetery,” Kilhart said. “It may be a little unpleasant for them because of the smell, but unfortunately we’ve exhausted our resources for what we can do to alleviate that situation.”

Elsewhere in town, problems with pooling and excessive water have caused problems as it washes out roadsides and floods basement, Kilhart said. In fact, residents forced to pump water from their basements since December have caused problem with ice forming on the roadways. The DPW is advising people to find alternate means of discharging the water to avoid creating dangerous conditions for drivers. 

“It’s not unique to just Athol, all the folks in DPWs throughout Massachusetts are talking about stormwater and stormwater pooling,” Kilhart said.

In South Hadley, town officials closed Route 116 briefly on Monday to investigate a similar smelly problem. They determined the smell was caused by hydrogen sulfide gas coming from Titus Pond. Hydrogen sulfide is a “highly flammable, explosive gas” that can pose serious health hazards, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the town’s fire district found “no hazardous concentrations outside the storm drain,” reports the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

According to Athol’s director of planning Eric Smith, the Conway School of Landscape Design plans to look at the Silver Lake Park area and draw plans to improve it this spring. During the planning phase, these plans will be open to public comment, Smith said. 

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.

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