A city well contaminated with E. coli has been shut down and disconnected from the public water supply, allowing Columbus City Utilities to lift a nearly 24-hour boil-water advisory, the utility director announced Saturday afternoon.
“The Boil Water Advisory is lifted and customers in Columbus City Utilities service area can resume using tap water for all purposes. Columbus City Utilities water quality is proven safe,” according to a notification from the water utility just before 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
All five test samples that were taken Friday from Well No. 3-II on the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds, at County Road 200 and Jonesville Road (State Road 11), showed contamination of fecal material, said Keith Reeves, director of the municipally owned water and sewer utility serving Columbus.
Although all five samples tested positive when results became known Saturday, Reeves said he received permission from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to lift the boil-water advisory because the contaminated well had been taken out of service Friday afternoon and, as such, was isolated from the remainder of the city water supply for 24 hours.
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Through testing, city water elsewhere in the system showed no signs of contamination, Reeves said.
The water contamination was first realized as a result of routing testing utility workers were doing, he said.
A sample taken Wednesday from the city’s distribution system pipes tested positive for E. coli when results were returned on Thursday, he said.
But since samples can contain errors, protocol called for additional testing, he said.
“There are a number of things that might cause a positive sample — including sample error or testing error,” he said.
All 15 of the city’s wells were tested, and the one at the fairgrounds tested positive for contamination, he said.
With a second positive test result, the situation became a tier-1 assessment, Reeves said, requiring a notification.
It had been at least 30 years since the city had found contamination in its lines, requiring an emergency boil-water advisory, said Reeves, who has been director of the utility for about 20 years.
But with the contaminated well shut down, and followup testing showing no contamination elsewhere in the city’s water supply, Reeves said he was able to lift the advisory.
He said the utility will be able to meet the city’s water needs with 14 of 15 wells functioning properly.
“We’re going to have to do a full inspection of the (bad) well,” Reeves said. “The crisis portion has been averted since we took the well out of production. So we’ve got some time.”
Reeves, whose cellphone number was distributed with the boil-water advisory, said he received about 50 phone calls from people about the advisory.
“It’s a terrible burden on people and businesses, and I regret that, but there are things we have to do to ensure safety,” Reeves said.
John Busach, like many Columbus residents, went to the store Saturday to stock up on bottled water.
“It’s for the puppies so they don’t have to drink tap water,” he said outside the east side Walmart.
Amara King, also of Columbus, bought four one-gallon jugs at the same store.
“I wish they could have told us as soon as they found out,” she said.
Getting the word out
Notifications of the boil-water advisory began about 4:15 p.m. Friday, when The Republic and other media was notified, the same time senior members of the city administration were informed, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development for the city.
With Mayor Jim Lienhoop headed to the International Paris Air Show in France on an economic trade mission, Ferdon served as the city’s point person in disseminating information.
She made Lienhoop aware of the development and also contacted Dr. Brian Niedbalski, the Bartholomew County public health medical director.
“I knew this was a potential public-health issue,” Ferdon said.
Ferdon also notified Anthony Pope, director of protective services and emergency preparedness at Columbus Regional Health, and contacted Mark Jones, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, who was working with organizers of a softball tournament that brought 250 teams to Columbus for the weekend.
The United States Sports Specialty Association girls fast-pitch softball tournament was scheduled for Friday through Sunday in Columbus — playing outdoors in temperatures approaching 90 degrees, conditions that call for cooling off with drinking water.
Ferdon also contacted TD Advertising of Columbus, which manages the city’s web page, to update residents about the advisory — which occurred by about 6 p.m.
After making her phone calls, Ferdon said she stopped in about 6:15 p.m. at the Live On the Plaza concert at the Bartholomew County Public Library Plaza, featuring the Los Angeles-based Groovaloos dance troop.
“Everybody there knew about it,” Ferdon said of the boil advisory.
Most told Ferdon that they learned about it from The Republic, through its website or social media — an hour before the city was able to post the advisory on its own website.
“Obviously there’s a level of concern,” she said of the contaminated water.
But based on information regarding the well tests she received from Reeves, Ferdon called it a “low level of concern, but a huge inconvenience.”
Sheriff hears the news
Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers found out about the water advisory from a supervisor at the County Jail, who had also heard about it from The Republic.
Myers, who serves as chairman of the county’s 911 Board, started trying to contact county commissioners.
His message to them: “We’re getting a lot of phone calls from people who are concerned,” Myers said.
“I was able to verify through the city what was going on,” the sheriff said. “Once we hooked up, they were very helpful.”
Myers brought Shannon Hinton, Bartholomew County emergency management director, into the discussion. Hinton talked to utilities director Reeves to get the water-advisory press release.
“They think there’s a minimal risk, but you have to put this out,” Myers said he concluded.
Myers decided to utilize the county’s emergency-notification system, EverBridge, to notify residents at about 7:58 p.m. Friday of the advisory, which Hinton initiated.
Myers said he worried about people panicking.
The sheriff said he knew calls would be coming into the county’s 911 Emergency Operations Center and the Columbus Police Department from anxious residents looking for answers.
For himself, the sheriff had personal responsibility for 231 inmates housed in the jail that would be affected.
Like others, Myers said members of his staff out to purchase enough bottled water or jugs for inmates to last a few days.
Myers said day-in and day-out communications between the city and county are normally strong, but that he was disappointed that someone from the city hadn’t contacted him, or county commissioners, directly.
“Everybody’s got to be on the same page,” Myers said. “I think some people might have gotten left out on this one.”
Discovering E. coli in the city water system is a big deal, the sheriff said.
“We underestimated people’s reaction to this, and for every action there’s a reaction,” he said.
After talking with Ferdon, Myers said he was certain city personnel were doing what they felt was best for the circumstances.
“We’ll work through this so we’re delivering the same message to everybody at the same time,” he said.
Ferdon said she was thankful for the county’s help in helping get the word out.
“We really appreciate their partnership,” she said.
Like Myers, Ferdon said a debriefing is in order — to assess what worked, who needs to be alerted, and how best to get accurate information to residents on a timely basis.
E. coli contamination is a fecal indicator showing microbes whose presence indicates water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes. This contamination can cause short-term health effects including diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches or other symptoms. The microbes cause a special health risk for infants, young children and the elderly and those with severely compromised immune systems.
Anyone experiencing these symptoms is advised to seek medical help immediately.
For nearly 24 hours, all customers in the Columbus City Utilities water system were advised to boil their water for one minute and let it cool before using it for drinking, making ice, preparing food or washing dishes.
The boil-water advisory was issued at 4:15 p.m. Friday and lifted at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Southwestern Bartholomew Water Corp. also issued a boil-water advisory Friday night for its customers, since it purchases most of its water from the city.
As a precaution, the Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp. did the same Saturday afternoon for its entire service area since it also purchases some of its water from Columbus City Utilities.
All advisories were lifted Saturday afternoon.
If you have a severely compromised immune system, have an infant or are elderly, you may be at increased risk from drinking contaminated water and should seek advice from your health care provider about any symptoms. General guidelines on ways to lessen the risk of infection are available from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.