Chilmark to seal off Crab Corner, post hazard signs

Inspector of wires finds unpermitted work in Menemsha.

Marine electricity remains a concern at Crab Corner. Electrical work slated for July 12 may remedy the problem. — Rich Saltzberg

Chilmark will mark Crab Corner with formalized signs that indicate a shock hazard may be present in the water, selectman Jim Malkin, the board’s harbor liaison, announced at the selectmen’s July 11 meeting.

Crab Corner will also be cordoned with fencing, per a consensus reached at that meeting between the beach committee, selectmen, and executive secretary Tim Carroll. Crab Corner is a popular children’s swimming and wading spot, bookended by the Menemsha jetty and the town’s transient dock, where several people have reported feeling electric current when in contact with the water, including a group of schoolchildren on a field trip.

The signs are a national code necessity, Mr. Malkin said, and also part of an “abundance of caution” approach by the town.

Beach superintendent Martina Mastromonaco described the current hand-lettered “No Swimming” sign positioned between string-draped traffic cones as “jury-rigged,” and said she was in favor of more professional signage, but cautioned against placing placards that could be misconstrued.

“I mean, honestly, there’s sharks in the water, too, so if you put a sign up that says warning, potentially it could mean shark,” she said.

Sharks notwithstanding, she touched on other threats she perceives at Crab Corner.

“There’s a lot of potential hazards in that area,” she said. “I’ve seen kids before we had the shocking thing jumping off the dock, and you know it is a boating area.” She also said recent dredging has left the area with a steep drop-off.

Ms. Mastromonaco also expressed concern about her lifeguards’ ability to cover Menemsha Beach and Crab Corner simultaneously.

“I’m just worried because my guards are not stationed right at the entrance where people go into the water,” she said. “They’re stationed on the beach, as opposed to the last week in June, [when] they sat right in front of the corner.”

Mr. Malkin said he was open to discussing placement of a dedicated lifeguard at Crab Corner.

“Until our town electrical inspector signs off on what has been done — signs off on what we’re doing and then on what was done — I’m not willing as the liaison to the harbor to put people in potential jeopardy,” he said.

Reached by telephone the day after the meeting, Cole Powers, Chilmark’s inspector of wires, said that he discovered a great deal of electrical work in Menemsha that took place without his knowledge.

“No one ever pulled permits or contacted me about it,” he said. He said the town didn’t approach him about the electrical anomalies in Menemsha until the Fourth of July, and that what he found when he looked into the matter was “a very serious problem.” He said a previous contractor failed to “install an equipment grounding conductor in order to isolate neutral conductor” between the subpanel and the main panel. He said this results in transient neutrals and creates floating voltage “immediately — first thing it does.” Since the transient dock is concrete and steel only sheathed in wood, it is largely conductive, he said. Mr. Powers said the fix will amount to several thousands of dollars, as it will require costly copper materials. He said his main background is in industrial controls, so the correction, which might be more challenging for a standard electrician, shouldn’t be problematic for him.

He also said he could not rule out stray voltages in other areas of the harbor.

“The harbormaster has worked very hard on exploring this issue, and our selectman has worked very hard on this, and everything that was done in that area in terms of electrical work was done according to code, it was all new,” selectman Warren Doty said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a mystery, and there’s no easy solution to why this is happening. We’ve had very good electricians look at it; we’ve had four different electricians look at it; and nobody comes up with an easy answer, and then there’s nothing in the water, and then four days later there’s a tiny — you know, one volt or less of electricity — in the water. So we don’t know what it is, but people are working on it every day, and I would support the idea that we should have no swimming until we’re certain that this is corrected, because we don’t need this problem.”

Harbormaster Dennis Jason said that the low voltage might still be capable of arresting a person’s heart and killing him or her.

“I’ve seen kids in there at night,” beach committee member Margaret Maida said.

“You can’t legislate or enforce blind stupidity,” Mr. Malkin said. He added that people have become disgruntled over the swimming ban at Crab Corner.

“I had a very aggressive person inform me that I was ruining their vacation, and that this was something that they’d looked forward to and done many, many times over many, many years, and it was part of their experience and the character of the town and so on and so forth,” he said. “But I said, We cannot waive liability, and I’m sorry, you can’t go in there.”

Selectman Bill Rossi affirmed the value of the swimming ban until the electrical problem is identified.

“It would be very irresponsible of us if we allowed any swimming until we know,” he said.

“We’re going to have this entire project put under the jurisdiction of our town electrical inspector,” Mr. Malkin said. “He’s going to vet what is going to be done there; he’s going to sign off on it. If he needs an engineer, we’ll obtain one. And then he will supervise the project, and at the end of it he will certify to us that it has been completed properly. We have lots of cooks and potential cooks and sous-chefs who are happy to help, but we need one person in charge of this. It shouldn’t be the harbormaster, it shouldn’t be me, it needs to be the town electrical inspector.”

One “potential cook” was former West Tisbury School science teacher Karl Riley, author of the book “Tracing EMFs in Building Wiring and Grounding.” Mr. Riley examined various portions of the transient dock that stretches beside Crab Corner and found notable electrical irregularities. His examination was cut short by an unidentified person. Mr. Riley was directed to pose any inquiries to Mr. Powers.

Electrical Safety Foundation International president Brett Brenner told The Times his organization is monitoring an uptick in aquatic electricity leakage and electrical shock drowning. “We’re seeing more and more of it,” he said.

Many of these cases occur in rural areas where amateur repairs tend to take place on docks, or where maintenance can be substandard. Mr. Brenner said that most people believe that the reason marinas prohibit swimming is to avoid boat accidents, but in reality the prohibition is a hedge against stray electricity. He said swimmers who perish from electric-shock drowning aren’t electrocuted per se, but have the connectivity between their brains and their muscles scrambled, resulting in limbs that no longer obey. Children, because of their smaller masses and slower reaction times, are disproportionately affected by such phenomena. Where electricity is leaking from can be challenging to determine, he said. He cited boats as potential sources, but added that in a dock environment, underground wires at appreciable distances from the water can transfer their charges if a conductive element provides a link.

GFCIs (ground-fault circuit interrupters) are scalable for docks and marinas, and are among the best safeguards against electrical seepage into water. Mr. Brenner said while water in general is a poor conductor, electricity can conduct better in marine environments than in ponds or pools because saltwater is a better conductor than freshwater.