E. Coli Found in Water at Five Falmouth Locations
By: Christopher Kazarian
Miscommunication among town employees in the Falmouth Department of Public Works water division is being blamed for the delay in residents not being informed about E. coli being found in drinking water until nearly a week after tests came back positive for the bacteria.
Last Monday water samples were taken from several sites along the town’s distribution system—done daily in Falmouth, according to Water Superintendent William R. Chapman—and sent to Groundwater Analytical in Buzzards Bay for testing.
Falmouth has been under a boil water order since Tuesday, due to test results showing the presence of fecal coliform and E.coli bacteria.
A public forum to address the town's water quality will be held Friday at 5 PM at the Falmouth Town Hall.
Eric H. Jensen, the operations manager for Groundwater Analytical, said his lab conducted an analysis for total coliform bacteria using a process called membrane filtration, in which the goal is to feed any bacteria that may be alive in the sample and assess its growth 24 hours later.
“If you see growth—they are little dots on a plate, something that looks like total coliform has a unique presentation to it—then you have to go to the next step,” he said. This entails a lengthier test to verify the presence of total coliform as well as the presence of E. coli.
E. coli, he said, is a more serious strain of coliform bacteria because it is usually associated with fecal matter, both human and animal.
The state requires two consecutive days of clean samples to occur, which has yet to happen, before the boil order will be lifted.
Subsequent tests have not shown the presence of E. coli, although there still have been readings of total coliform.
“Total coliform is less critical, but still an indicator that harmful organisms may be present, not that they are, but that they could be,” he said.
Mr. Jensen said the test for E. coli can take up to 48 hours to run, but his laboratory had conducted its analysis by Wednesday of last week, at which time his staff relayed to David A. Dietlin, the new chief plant operator for the water division, that Falmouth’s samples contained the more serious bacteria.
There were five locations in Falmouth in which water samples showed up positive for E. coli. They were located near the Woods Hole Fire Station, the West Falmouth Fire Station, Falmouth Hospital, the Main Street Fire Station, and the DPW garage, Mr. Jensen said.
Three additional locations, near the Falmouth Technology Park, on Thomas B. Landers Road and near Mares Pond, he said, showed up inconclusive for E. coli because there were other bacteria present that did not allow total coliform to grow.
He said this does not mean total coliform, or an E. coli strain, was not present, just that it “might not have been able to grow.”
And at sampling sites near the North Falmouth Fire Station and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, he said, tests showed only the presence of total coliform.
After those results were given to the town, Mr. Jensen said it was Falmouth’s responsibility to notify the state, both because E. coli was found and more than five percent of the samples taken showed up positive for total coliform.
“The state should be notified and that is the town’s responsibility,” he said.
As to why that did not happen until Monday is unclear, but Mr. Chapman attributed it to a communication failure in his division as to what the severity of the situation was.
Falmouth Water Superintendent
He said he was notified by Mr. Dietlin on Thursday that additional testing, done upstream and downstream of the sources as well as retakes at the same sources, would begin at the sites where results came back positive.
Mr. Chapman said he was under the impression that those were being done under the direction of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which turned out to not be the case.
Mr. Chapman added that he also was under the impression the tests were related to the presence of total coliform, not E. coli.
Yesterday morning, Mr. Chapman said he was still trying to sort through the specifics of last week, attempting to determine what he was told and when he was told. “There’s a discrepancy as to whether or not I was even notified [last week],” he said.
He said the DEP should have been notified last Wednesday, but it was not until Monday when Mr. Dietlan did so.
“I’m not certain why he called,” Mr. Chapman said, noting that he was on vacation that day.
Falmouth officials may face sanctions
Joseph Ferson, spokesman for the DEP, said Falmouth could face enforcement action related to when it notified the state agency.
On Monday, he said, town officials requested technical assistance from the DEP. After receiving additional information about the situation, Mr. Ferson said state officials asked to speak with Mr. Chapman on Tuesday morning.
The night before, both Mr. Chapman and Falmouth Town Manager Robert L. Whritenour Jr. had reported to selectmen that there were no public health issues related to the high water levels at Long Pond and the reports of unusual odors and strange taste of the town drinking water.
The next morning, Mr. Chapman met with DEP officials, he said, and “at the conclusion they were satisfied with everything that had occurred. Then, at 3 PM, I was notified by a conference call from several members [they] wanted to issue the boil water order.”
Mr. Chapman said the order was a precautionary measure taken by the state.
Since Tuesday his department has increased the level of chlorine in the water system and were flushing mains with the goal of removing bacteria.
Falmouth receives readings of total coliform all the time, said Mr. Chapman. In the past, he said, the town has come close to passing the threshold of having five percent of its samples showing the presence of total coliform, particularly during the summer, because high temperatures have an impact on the chlorine treatments.
“We come to four percent very often. This is nothing new,” he said. “That is why we have to do retakes, sample upstream and downstream.”
Those additional samples are needed because there can be errors in the initial analysis, whether samples were mixed up, clerical mistakes made, or there are issues related to analysis.
Because of the room for error, he said he doubted some of the results from samples that showed up positive for E. coli last week because “no follow-ups showed any traces for it either upstream or downstream. It could have been a sampling error, documentation error or clerical error. No retraces of E. coli to me makes me highly suspect of the validity of those tests.”
At the same time, Mr. Chapman said there was a concern with both the Woods Hole Fire Station and North Falmouth Fire Station sites because those historically have tested positive for total coliform in the past.
Mr. Chapman attributed the test results last week to a combination of factors that included higher than normal water elevations in Long Pond, the town’s surface water source, which contributes roughly three-fourths of the town’s drinking water to residents.
Those high levels, he said, mean that animal dens along with trees and vegetation have been exposed to water when they normally are not.
In addition, he said, there was a significant rainfall in the beginning of June that could have contributed to the problem.
Finally, he said, the pond recently turned over, a natural event that happens twice a year, in the spring and fall, when the upper levels of the pond become more dense than the lower levels and water quality can be impacted.
A larger problem
Both Mr. Chapman and DPW Superintendent Raymond A. Jack said last week’s discovery of E. coli indicates a larger problem facing Long Pond, which is an unfiltered water system.
In 1993 the town built a disinfectant plant at Long Pond, receiving a waiver from the state to do so. This meant that Falmouth did not have to build a more expensive filtration system, as required by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act’s surface water treatment rule, although Mr. Jack is a proponent of the town building such a system. He estimated that system would cost the town between $20 million and $40 million, but the investment would be worth it.
Most surface water sources, he said, are filtered, something that would benefit Long Pond, which is a living organism with bacteria and microorganisms in it.
“This happens on a regular basis where we do have total coliform positive results,” he said. “That doesn’t mean fecal coliform, but it is telling us that, yes, there is microbiology in the water. We disinfect it, but that is the only treatment technique applied at the plant.”
As an example of the types of risks to a system such as Long Pond, Mr. Chapman said, geese could be swimming at the Wastewater Treatment Facility on Blacksmith Shop Road in the morning and fly to Long Pond in the afternoon and “there’s nothing we can do about it. We come close to having these types of events more often than people realize.”
While many residents were trying to get a sense for the seriousness of the contamination, town officials downplayed the problem, calling the boil water order a precautionary step.
“It sounds more serious than it is,” Mr. Chapman said. “Boil water orders are pretty common with the DEP. You will probably see a dozen more of them between now and September in the Commonwealth.”
However, he endorsed the DEP’s ruling as a way to ensure the public’s health.
Mr. Whritenour agreed, stressing that “this is the most prudent step we can take to issue the boil order... We want to err on the side of public safety. We are not going to take any chances.”
But at least one town official, Mr. Jack, said he was personally following his own protocols.
“For me it is business as usual,” he said. “I always have and do drink town water right from the tap. At the same time, however, when it comes to boil water orders, they have a purpose and while they are precautionary in nature, people should abide by them.”
This afternoon at 5, residents are invited to town hall to ask questions and air complaints to town officials, a meeting that Chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen Brent V.W. Putnam said could draw considerable interest from a frustrated public.
Over the past three days Mr. Putnam said he has been bombarded with phone calls, e-mails and comments on his blog, highlighting one exchange in which a resident half-joked to him that a new slogan for the town could be “Don’t go to Mexico, just stay in Falmouth to drink the water,” he said.
“The public is upset and understandably so. I think the anger is not so much to have people boil water, but the anger is why did it take so long to be told to boil water and when it was told it was a haphazard approach. It was a poor response on our part.”
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