Questions arise in wake of M’boro water problem

Published 8:38 am Thursday, November 11, 2010

MURFREESBORO — Officials say the source for what caused the recent water contamination here has been isolated, but they are hesitant to say what exactly caused the boil water notice.

Meanwhile, town officials are assuring residents the water is now safe to consume and that water customers were notified as soon as possible after the contamination was discovered. The council is also looking at other ways to get future emergency messages out to residents at the same time.

Last Thursday (November 4) afternoon, a possible problem with the town’s water system was detected during routine testing for the month of November and a boil water advisory was issued. Additional testing revealed the presence of E. coli/fecal coliform bacteria in the town’s water system, prompting a drinking water warning, a boil water notice and forcing local restaurants to close their doors for three days.

On Monday, Clyde Saunders came before the Murfreesboro Town Council to express his concern about the time it took to inform citizens about the contaminated water.

According to Saunders, Riverview Elementary School knew about the issue with the water system Friday morning.

“Here in town we have, just like anywhere else, people with weakened immune systems, people that are ill, we have elderly people,” he said. “And the school system can be told on Friday morning, prior to the citizens in town. …I found out about it Friday night.”

Saunders suggested the council give the Safety Director (Darrell Rowe) and Public Works Director (Gene Byrd) the authority that if any other emergency occurs that they contact residents the same day.

“With an immune system that is weak, a person could have gotten sick,” he said. “An ounce of prevention would have been less than a pound of cure.”

Saunders concluded that the town should direct town staff to deliver emergency notices immediately.

Mayor John Hinton said he believed he could speak for Byrd and noted that the town did follow protocol from the state, which required a written notice to go out within 24 hours.

The mayor stated two written notices did go out to citizens and agreed there was a chance wind could blow away after the notice was delivered.

“I must admit it was pretty quick that this came down upon us, but we did follow the state’s protocol,” Hinton said.

“I’m not saying you didn’t follow protocol, what I’m asking is that you act on it right away and not the next day,” responded Saunders.

“We did start notification immediately,” said Councilman Billy Theodorakis.

“The next day is immediately?” asked Saunders.

“No sir, we started immediately with notifications and each customer was notified with a written notice,” said Theodorakis.

After further discussion between the two, Theodorakis reiterated notification of the town’s water customers did begin immediately.

“We’re not going to get everybody at one time, we don’t have that system in place, we don’t have a reverse E-911,” said Theodorakis. “We used every source we could to start (notification) up.”

Theodorakis added he wasn’t sure if it was the town or the Hertford County Public Health Authority that notified the school system.

“No one was negligent in notifying the public,” he said. “We did everything possible to notify everyone as fast as possible.”

“It would be nice if we could notify everyone at the same time,” said Mayor Pro-Tempore Molly Eubank. “I didn’t get mine until the same time you (Saunders) did.”

She added the Public Works staff along with employees from other town departments did “everything humanly possible” to get the word out.

“And I commend them for that,” said Eubank.

Randy Roberts asked the board if they knew what happened to cause the contamination, how it came about and how to stop it from occurring again.

“I don’t think we’re still aware of what exactly happened,” said Hinton. “We have some ideas and theories. …Hopefully we’ll know more in the coming days.”

“It’s been isolated, it’s been shut off from the system, the state was here yesterday (Monday) and we flushed all the lines,” said Theodorakis.

He added the water system had been cleared and that was why council had rescinded the boil water notice.

“We’re not going to speculate and say, yes, this is exactly what happened,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything, but the problem has been isolated and we’re confident it can be fixed.”

Roberts asked when the town found out if they could let the citizens know.

“I think the public needs to know,” said Byrd. “Once we get more information it will be released.”

Later in his report to council, Byrd said his staff was still monitoring the water via samples as well as aggressively flushing water lines.

He also spoke about construction on the new lines on Wynn and Union streets that are now complete.

“We’re waiting on final approval from the state to put the two water lines in service,” Byrd said.

Theodorakis asked Byrd to explain about the new lines as many citizens thought that those lines were the cause of the water contamination.

Byrd said the lines are hooked up to the system, but no water has gone through them yet.

He added he thought Public Works did a good job notifying the town’s 1,300 water customers via hand delivered notices of the contaminated water.

Barbara Holloman asked if the town had considered a reverse 911 system and referred to the CodeRED Emergency Communication System in Northampton County, where important messages are sent by telephone to citizens.

Theodorakis said the town is looking into the possibility of a reverse 911 system. He added the state’s protocol is very clear as to how citizens are notified with hand delivered notices.

Eubank added they had discussed the reverse 911 system and other ideas. She noted not everyone has a landline telephone and that regardless of a system like that put in place, the hand delivered notices would have to go out to residents.

During his report to council, Town Administrator Lee Capps’ spoke about the process the town had to go through during the boil water notice event.

Capps said the town did receive notice on Thursday (November 4) at approximately 3:45 p.m. that two out of five of the town’s standard well sites that are tested on a monthly basis were showing contaminants beyond the standard (20 percent) of what is allowed.

Those results fell in line with a Tier 2 violation with the Public Water Supply Section of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“For a Tier 2 violation, you have actually 30 days to notify your customers,” he said. “I think it’s extraordinarily important for this community to know that your Public Works Department waited not even 30 hours, not even 10 hours, not even three hours to have Tier 2 notices printed and ready for distribution to the entire community.”

At that point in time Capps the initial tests showed no evidence of E. coli or fecal in the system.

Capps said when results from a rigorous course of testing came back the violation moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1, a boil water notice.

“In this notice you have 24 hours to get the word out if you move into the threshold where there are contaminants that include E. coli or fecal,” he said.

Capps said the Hertford County Public Health Authority and the town was notified simultaneously.

“So at that exact real time moment that we knew we had to notify everyone in 24 hours, our county health department had the same information and they deliberated, in their choice of decision making, that there was an imminent danger to the community,” he said. “Based on not having precise knowledge of the test, but based on the samples that it was a Tier 1. In Tier 1 they had the discretion and chose the discretion of closing down the commercial graded kitchens and the boil water mandatory notice.”

He said this was Friday (November 5).

The testing sites then went from five to 10-12 sites. Capps noted that the process is dynamic and the town now has a stronger sense of where the problem is and is working to clarify where it is.

He continued by saying the town now has a flushed and clean water system.

“Right now we have very fresh water,” he said.