If William Shakespeare hadn’t already used it, “Much Ado About Nothing” could be used to describe last week’s drinking water crisis in Commerce.
“It was conclusive that there is nothing wrong with our water system and it appears to be a laboratory testing issue,” read a statement on the city’s Facebook page once the EPD confirmed what city officials knew all along. “The City apologizes for the inconvenience.”
EPD has not.
The city received notice on Wednesday, Aug. 20, that three of four routine samples taken on Monday, Aug. 18, tested positive for E. coli bacteria in the EPD lab. But those same samples all also had adequate chlorine residuals. Since chlorine effectively kills bacteria and since the samples came from sites in widely separated areas, officials knew immediately that the problem was not in the water, but in the testing.
“The type of sample that came back positive — you’d have to have a dead animal in a water tank or in a water line, which as I said, is virtually impossible,” city manager Pete Pyrzenski commented.
The chance of E. coli being present in sufficiently chlorinated water at three diverse locations from two water tanks may have been virtually impossible, but EPD issued the “boil” notice out of what Mayor Clark Hill termed “an abundance of caution.” City officials speculated that the sample bottles provided by EPD may have been corrupted. The bottles arrived unsealed, with visible moisture inside.
“We’ve got to go to the extreme, regardless of what our professional opinion is, in regard to public health and public safety,” noted Clay Sikes owner of ESG Operations, which operates the water plant. Sikes added that in his experience, such anomalies have always been linked to a sampling or laboratory test error.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “A logical person would presume it was probably a lab or sampling error, but dealing with public health and safety, we take no chances.”
Pyrzenski said the city checked with the hospital, nursing home and the Toyota clinic and found no GI issues that might be linked to the water.
“That really tells us this is a lab mistake,” Pyrzenski insisted at the time.
But with a EPD-ordered boil water notice, the city purchased flats of bottled water, which it delivered to the city school system, the hospital and the nursing home. It posted the notice on its web page and its Facebook page, contacted the radio station and the newspaper.
The city opted not to use a call system that can reportedly reach every number registered locally with 911.
“I made the decision within about 30 minutes,” Pyrzenski said. “In hindsight, we made the right decision. The public is due the correct information. What I don’t want to portray is that they can’t trust the public utilities. At any point, if I thought we had a real crisis, I would have used the reverse 911 system.
“If you don’t need to spread panic, don’t cry wolf. You educate, but don’t spread panic to the population.”
Pyrzenski said the city notice got more than 5,000 views on Facebook and had 13 negative responses.
The city manager and about 17 city employees had a staff meeting this past Monday morning to go over the event and critique the city’s response. Part of the takeaway, he said, was changing the sampling process to use a private lab and guaranteed sterile sample jars. They also talked about better notification procedures, an avenue the city said it will pursue. Pyrzenski notes that the city water system serves customers in Banks County, Madison County, Maysville and Jackson County beyond the city limits.