The city’s water is safe and there was never a risk to public health or safety.
That’s the message Columbus City Utilities was delivering to customers Tuesday after eight samples from the city water system showed no contamination.
City officials are trying to reassure residents that any water consumed over the weekend from the city’s system was not contaminated by E. coli, whether or not customers complied with a boil-water advisory.
Utilities director Keith Reeves said the city and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management have determined that a test last Wednesday showing E. coli in the water distribution lines produced a “false positive” reading. A re-test on the distribution lines Thursday came back negative the next day, meaning the bacteria was not in the water distribution pipes, he said.
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“There can be errors in the testing process,” Reeves said Tuesday.
State statutes require that a water utility test upstream and downstream from the point where an initial test showing contamination, he said. When Columbus’ second test of the water distribution system came back negative, that showed the water in customers’ taps was not contaminated, he said.
The reason the state allows a utility to do a retest without notifying to the public is because the test for E. coli itself is subject to problems, Reeves said.
The test can be erroneous if the faucet where the sample is taken is contaminated by fecal material, he said. For example, bird droppings on an outdoor faucet used for testing could contaminate a sample being tested, Reeves said.
State law gives water utilities a 24-hour period after a positive contamination result to re-test to determine if the test is a false-positive or accurate, and the city was not required to notify the public at that time, IDEM officials and Reeves said.
Since 2012, IDEM records show the Columbus City Utilities have had at least one instance of re-testing every year except 2014. The most recent re-test had been of a well and the distribution system for coliform contamination in June 2016, IDEM records show. Before that, the most recent one was a distribution system retest in October 2015.
“Historically, Columbus’ routine water testing results in three false positives per year for various surface contaminants, including E. coli bacteria,” Reeves said in the Tuesday news release. “For this reason, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and IDEM regulations do not call for public notification until the results are verified. In this case, the repeat tests proved the original test was erroneous.”
The state also requires that a city utility’s source wells be tested following a positive test result. When testing Thursday on Well No. 3-II on the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds at County Road 200S and Jonesville Road showed fecal material contamination, it was taken out of service Friday and a boil advisory for the city of Columbus was issued that afternoon as a precaution, Reeves said.
IDEM allowed the boil order to be lifted at 3 p.m. Saturday since the well was offline and any contaminated water had already gone through the water treatment system, Reeves said.
The tests on the fairgrounds well were conducted on water coming directly out of the ground — not water that had been through the purification process at the city water plant, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development for the city.
IDEM also told Reeves and city utility workers on Monday that the city’s water plant disinfection system was sufficient to kill any of the E. coli that might have come from the well into the water plant, Reeves said.
“The water was safe all along,” he said.
The plant uses chlorine and filters, along with iron and manganese removal procedures to purify the water before it goes out in to the system, he said. The water is pre-chlorinated before it goes through the plant’s filters, and chlorinated again after it goes through the filters to ensure no contamination comes from items caught in the filter.
City officials met with IDEM officials on Monday as an investigation continues into the well contamination readings, Ferdon said.
City workers are still investigating why the one city well tested positive for E. coli and suspect that those tests may have also been a “false positive” from the testing sample, rather than actual contamination, Reeves said.
Three other nearby city wells show clear tests, which means whatever the problem is with Well No. 3-II is localized around that well and is not more widespread, Reeves said. City workers are looking at the well itself to see if contamination is present where water samples are obtained from it for IDEM.
Friday’s boil advisory led to concern among residents, business owners and county officials, some of whom complained that the warning was not issued in an effective or timely manner and did not give enough information to residents about how to respond.
Bartholomew County Emergency Management Director Shannan Hinton said she spoke with Reeves at about 8 p.m. Friday, nearly four hours after the city boil advisory was issued, after hearing about it from other sources. She then issued an Everbridge notification about it to people who subscribe to the Bartholomew County warning system.
The delay in the Everbridge notification was discussed in a meeting Monday with city officials and they are now working with the county’s emergency management staff about notification protocols for the future, Hinton said.
The Everbridge system has the capability not only to send messages to local citizens, but also to send specific notifications to city and county officials at the same time, Hinton said.
Hinton said she suspected Reeves was swamped with dealing with the situation and didn’t get the call made to have the notification go out after it was sent to the local media and city officials.
Everbridge statistics show 5,852 individuals confirmed they received the message Friday night, and an additional 437 people “late confirmed” within an hour or so of receiving the message, Hinton said. There were 402 “unreachable” — usually disconnected — numbers in the Friday notification, she said.
Two water utilities that buy water from Columbus, Southwestern Bartholomew Water Corp. and Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp., issued delayed boil orders late Friday night and early Saturday morning after learning about Columbus’ test results.
“With every emergency, we do a thorough evaluation and look at what we could have done better,” Reeves said Tuesday.
That will include examining how the alert on the boil advisory went out and why a delay occurred in having the announcement sent out over Everbridge, he said.
IDEM cleared the Columbus City Utilities on drinking water quality and following proper protocols in a statement to media on Monday from Barry Sneed, IDEM public information officer.
When Columbus City Utilities issued its boil order on Friday, city officials called for residents to bring water to a rolling boil for one minute, and letting it cool before using it. The wording is the same used by other water systems in Bartholomew County when issuing boil orders.
The city has received some criticism from residents for not telling customers to boil water for five minutes before letting it cool.
The five minute boiling advisory comes from a state document that is used by retail food establishments in how to follow boil water orders. In addition to recommending that retail food establishments use bottled water in these situations, the five minute boiling method is mentioned as a way to disinfect small amounts of water in batches in a restaurant.
For more information on drinking water quality, visit the Indiana Department of Environmental Management website at in.gov/idem/.
Coming Thursday: Residents make their points to city council on water issue