E. coli in water worries parents

School officials try to ease concerns


Like he does most days, Cindy Allred's sixth-grade son came home from school one afternoon last week, tossed a school flier on the table and talked about his day.

The bathrooms were dirty, Allred recalled her son saying, and the kids had been told of a problem with the water.

Then she read the flier.

"DRINKING WATER WARNING," read the first line of the fluorescent-red flier. "North Harford Middle School water is contaminated with fecal coliform or E. coli. BOIL YOUR WATER BEFORE USING."

That flier, which school officials concede misrepresented the issue, sent parents of children at the Pylesville school into a frenzy, full of questions and fear for their children's safety.

Tuesday, school and health officials appeared before the Harford County Council, which doubles as the county health board, in an effort to ease those fears, explaining that the situation was under control from the start and continues to be handled appropriately.

If the parents who milled around long after the meeting is any indication, the explanations did little to clear the lingering safety and - perhaps more importantly, some said - accountability concerns. A follow-up meeting at which parents can voice their concerns is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"I understand that the water main break was beyond their control, but it is their fault they didn't react properly," said Alan McMillen Jr., the soon-to-be-announced president of the school's PTSA. "They stood up here and danced around."

Officials say drinking fountains and sinks have been shut off since contractors hit a sewage line Aug. 16 while connecting the middle school to a wastewater treatment plant across the street.

A test of the water soon after revealed bacteria at a level deemed unacceptable by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and on Sept. 12 the water was found to have traces of fecal coliform, unwelcome news in a county where recent MTBE wellwater issues have residents on edge.

Those concerns are legitimate, but misguided, said county health officer Dr. Drew Bernstein.

"At no time were we or MDE ever concerned there was a health issue that would put children in danger," Bernstein said. "The problem is the water. The water is off."

Pupils have been drinking bottled water and using hand-washing stations set up throughout the school. Only the toilets are using running water, officials said.

County schools superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas called the response a "Yeoman's effort."

But council members and some local politicians have criticized the school board for its shrouded handling of the issue. Council President Robert S. Wagner said he was "blindsided" by the news accounts, which Bernstein said were responsible for much of the hysteria.

"We didn't need to hear it from that group; we needed to hear it from this group," Wagner said of the school board.

State Sen. J. Robert Hooper, who represents the North Harford area, attended the meeting and stayed long after, talking with parents.

"Tell them [the parents] up front," he said. "Don't sit on it. If someone knew August 16th, tell them there's a problem then."

Parents said the handling of the situation has them skeptical. They were not informed of the problems at back-to-school nights in the days after the discovery of the bacteria, and some said they have seen evidence that suggests school officials were not forthcoming in their presentation to the health board.

For example, McMillen said, drinking fountains were still on until recently and the water in the hand-cleaning stations is noticeably dirty.

The parents in attendance were not limited to those of North Harford Middle children. North Harford middle, elementary and high schools are clustered together just off Route 24 in Pylesville.

Patty Jo Beard, the school system's director of facilities, said the new pipe was slated to be installed from the well to the building by the end of last week, at which point the water would need to be flushed with chlorine and tested this week. If everything goes right, the process would take about two to three weeks.

If it doesn't - a possibility with the cause of the contamination still a relative unknown - that timeline could be extended. Officials have not ruled out the possibility of tapping a second well, which was designed as a backup.


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