Voltage is back in Menemsha, Crab Corner to stay closed

Chilmark selectmen rebut accusations that process has lacked transparency, and say liability is at issue.

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Selectmen Jim Malkin, Bill Rossi, and Warren Doty with town clerk Jennifer Christy substituting for executive secretary Tim Carroll at Tuesday's five o'clock meeting at Chilmark town hall. — Rich Saltzberg

Phantom voltage was again detected in Menemsha, despite a grounding repair recently made to rid the harbor of electric current, Chilmark selectmen said at a meeting Tuesday.

The new voltage findings, coupled with the harbor advisory committee’s written recommendation for closure, spurred the selectmen to keep Crab Corner off-limits until after Labor Day, when a comprehensive electrical survey of the harbor will be completed. However, the selectmen also put forth the idea of keeping Crab Corner shut until the annual town meeting, when voters could weigh in on matters of liability that selectman Jim Malkin, the board’s harbor liaison, described as unwaivable. People have argued that if they’ve been active at Crab Corner in years past, why should this year be any different, he said.

“I said, I don’t know how you’ll feel if your kid gets hurt,” he said, “but I know how I’ll feel, and they say, we’ll take responsibility for this — they’ve done it for 20 years. So at that point I have to say we can’t accept that liability, even if you want to do it or even if there are two kids in there after hours and get their pictures in the paper” — a reference to kids spotted crabbing shin-deep in Crab Corner on Sunday at dusk, despite warning signs and a fence restricting the area. “We can’t do that,” Mr. Malkin continued, “that’s not fair or appropriate for this town.”

Town counsel advised that because Chilmark had been made aware of shock incidents, it is now obligated to act, and unable to allow use of Crab Corner at other people’s risk, Mr. Malkin said.

“No one can waive our liability for negligence knowing that there’s voltage in the water,” he said.

Mr. Malkin said he spoke with inspector of wires Cole Powers about harbor voltage earlier in the day. “They have tested since the last meeting,” he said. “They have detected voltage, but they have not detected major voltage.”

The report is not yet available.

Selectman Warren Doty, responding to complaints the town has not been transparent about its plans, pointed to the water tests.

“So we do have a plan, which is to continue to test the water and to make our reports open for everyone to see,” he said. The upcoming electrical survey of the harbor is also a plan, he said.

The survey will take place on the Thursday after Labor Day, Mr. Malkin said. He disputed criticism that the town wasn’t being transparent about Crab Corner.

“I take tremendous exception to that,” he said. “All of our meetings have been posted; all of our meetings have been inclusive of the boards involved … We have spoken to our electrical contractors; we have spoken with our electrical inspector; we have spoken with our harbormaster; we have spoken with our citizens. So I think that’s been quite open. We have also gone on the record, at Mr. Doty’s suggestion, as having run tests.”

“I’m not as concerned about insurance and liability as I am about making sure the children are safe,” Mr. Doty said. “The first thing is that it isn’t so much whether our insurance is going to cover somebody getting shocked or not; it’s that we don’t want anybody to get shocked.”

“Warren is 100 percent right,” Mr. Malkin said. “This starts from us not wanting kids to get hurt.”

Mr. Malkin went on to reveal that waterborne current delivered more than a tickle to at least one child during the July 21 West Tisbury School field trip that first brought the Crab Corner voltage problem to light. Mr. Malkin spoke to the child’s parents.

“He had a crab net; he was standing on the dock and he got a jolt, and he started shaking all over,” Mr. Malkin said. “They have a property; they’re Island people; they have horses and they have an electric fence around their horses, and he’s touched that. He said it was stronger than the shock that he gets from the horse fence.”

The transient dock, the one the boy dipped his net from, was approved by Chilmark residents at a town meeting half a decade ago after some wrangling over its design.

Harbor advisory committee chairman Everett Poole suggested Eversource might play a role in the harbor’s stray voltage.

“Back when we had three-phase power put down the Basin Road,” he said, “there was a great deal of trouble with voltage leaks.” And though electric equipment ran, “it wasn’t running properly because they had two wires screwed up … We were gettin’ jolts off it. I would be workin’ on the lobster pumps down there, and all at once I’d get knocked across the room,” he said.

In other business, selectmen unanimously voted to recommend to the commonwealth a proposal put forth by conservation agent Chuck Hodgkinson and endorsed at the meeting by Superintendent of Schools Matthew D’Andrea, whereby a modest surcharge on Steamship Authority fares would offset the Island school system’s post-employment benefits deficit liabilities and fund capital improvements to the high school. Finance committee member Rob Hannemann said the plan neglected to factor in variables like fluctuations in enrollment, and that it could use further refinement. Chairman Bill Rossi noted that refinement was inevitable as the scheme made the rounds with the Island’s other selectmen and was adjusted along the way.