E. coli source found in well: Hole casing at fairgrounds came from corrosion

A hole caused by corrosion in the casing of a well at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds likely contributed to the E. coli that led to a June boil-water advisory, city officials said.

The hole was discovered during a recent video-camera inspection of the well, said Keith Reeves, Columbus City Utilities director.

The affected well at the fairgrounds won’t be brought back online until it is repaired, which Reeves said he expects could take a few months.

Reeves stressed Thursday that the public was never in any danger and shouldn’t be worried about the city’s water supply.

“The water’s always been safe,” he said.

However, the water utility plans to add chlorine analyzers at two of its water treatment plants to monitor the water, Reeves said.

The city-operated utility issued a boil advisory June 16 for city water customers and notified the media and public health and safety agencies, but did not immediately send an alert through the city-county emergency notification system.

Reeves addressed the Columbus Utility Service Board on Thursday about its work to develop a communications plan for future alerts.

“Our first priority is to make sure we don’t end up in this situation again,” Reeves said.

Reeves said utilities officials believed they took corrective action on the well because it was shut down after the test results were known and thought a boil notice served no purpose. However, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management was unconvinced and ordered Columbus City Utilities to move forward with a public notice that included a boil-water advisory and to proceed with confirmation testing on the well, Reeves said.

Reeves acknowledged timely communication with other agencies was lacking, while Columbus City Utilities was slow in getting information on its website, adding that the information wasn’t helpful.

“There was a lot of miscommunication out there,” he said. “We need to do everything in our power to prevent these occurrences and minimize their impact when unavoidable.”

Reeves said the utility company plans on preparing a selection of public notices, which would include:

A precautionary boil notice if there is low water pressure.

A discovered-contaminant boil notice when there is a positive test result.

A do-not-use public notice, which would be issued when a toxic contaminant is identified.

In addition, Reeves said the Columbus City Utilities plans to create a website that would feature a public notice page and frequently asked questions. Those websites should be developed in the next month or two, he said.

Guidelines will also be issued to individuals who answer the phone at the utilities office, including the language of what an alert should say if it needs to be broadcast through the Everbridge system.

In the future, Reeves said the city’s police and fire departments, sheriff’s department, the county’s health department and the Bartholomew County Emergency Management Agency will all be contacted in advance of a boil-water notice, along with city officials.

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

The Everbridge notification to residents came nearly four hours after the boil-notice was issued.

“We were a little late getting that activated,” Reeves said.

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.

Reeves said once a boil-advisory alert is issued to Everbridge, the emergency notification system will also alert customers when the advisory is lifted, according to the new communications plan.

Reeves also said during an event, he wants to ensure call center staff is available to answer questions and that media requests are directed to a manager in charge.

Reeves also said he wants an annual training exercise implemented each June to review and update the names of individuals who might need to be contacted in case a boil advisory might need to be issued to ensure information is correct.

Matt Souza, a utility board member, said he liked the overall proposed plan.

“It’s driven by the facts,” he said. “It’s a good response to the environment.”

Reeves said his goal is to do a better job in getting information consolidated in one place and in an organized manner.

Pull Quote

“Our first priority is to make sure we don’t end up in this situation again.” — Keith Reeves, Columbus City Utilities director

Author photo
Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com