Board taking up boil-notice issues

Columbus City Utilities to discuss better communication plan for advisories

Columbus City Utilities officials will discuss how to improve the utility’s response if another boil-water advisory needs to be issued to customers.

Confusion and controversy ensued June 16 when the city-operated utility issued a boil advisory for city water customers and notified the media and public health and safety agencies, but did not send an alert through the community’s emergency management notification system, Everbridge.

At a Columbus City Council meeting June 20, utility director Keith Reeves said he would work with the Columbus Utility Service Board to evaluate how the utility handled the notification process and how it could be improved.

Board members plan to discuss an updated boil-water communications plan during a monthly utility board meeting Thursday at the utilities offices, 1111 McClure Road. The meeting, which will be open to the public, will follow a closed-door meeting of the board to discuss potential litigation, which starts at 11 a.m.

During the meeting, utility board members will discuss a draft of the communications plan, which Reeves said focuses on getting the story straight with emergency management officials, local health officials and others who need to have the information when it is released to the media and to the public.

Local officials need to have notice that a boil-order advisory is going out before it is issued to the media to prepare for questions and to help residents, he said.

Also, having utilities’ staff on the phones at the office following a boil advisory is also a part of the plan, he said.

City officials said water customers in Columbus had not experienced an emergency boil order for 30 years and many were unfamiliar with procedures that needed to be followed.

The boil-water advisory was issued for the city of Columbus at 4:15 p.m. June 16 after tests on untreated water from a well at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds came back positive for fecal bacteria.

The boil advisory was lifted 24 hours later when further testing showed water from the contaminated water would have gone through the water plant’s purification process and that Columbus water customers had not been exposed to contaminated water despite the well tests.

An earlier test that showed E. coli in the water plant’s distribution lines was shown to be a false positive, as subsequent tests showed no contamination, utility officials said.

The fairgrounds well that tested positive for E. coli remains offline from the city’s water system as utility workers, consultants and state officials continue to investigate how it was contaminated with the bacteria.

Work on the well stopped this past week during Bartholomew County Fair, Reeves said.

Consultants have been working with utility officials to inspect and clean the well, a process that has been going on since mid-June, Reeves said.

Reeves said he could not give any timetable as to when the well might be brought back online, acknowledging the well could remain offline through August.

“We’re in the process, and it’s not done yet,” he said.

An official report will be made to state officials about the well and the test results, he said.

The city tests the water supply in the distribution system with 40 samples a month, Reeves said.  All tests since the boil order have shown city water to be safe and free of contaminants, he said.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management cleared the Columbus City Utilities on drinking water quality and following proper protocols, said Barry Sneed, IDEM public information officer.

If you go

What: Columbus Utility Service Board

When: Immediately following 11 a.m. Thursday executive session

Where: Columbus City Utilities offices, 1111 McClure Road

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.