Reaction to water alert slow

Westminster warning issued belatedly


LOCAL OFFICIALS — State and local officials pledged yesterday to investigate why it took more than a day and a half after elevated levels of pollutants were detected in the Westminster water system for a boil order to be issued - and why that order was so poorly communicated that few knew about it until the problem had largely resolved itself.

Local officials - who remained confused yesterday about notification responsibilities - acknowledged miscommunications and said they will conduct an investigation to find out what went wrong and how to improve their procedures.

Although the problem was initially detected about 2 a.m. Sunday, many local officials were not notified until late Monday afternoon.

"We definitely have to address the communication issue," Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said yesterday. "If we screwed up, we have to acknowledge that and make improvements. We definitely didn't get ahead of the rumor mill."

The lagging communications delayed until Monday night a decision to close all public schools in Westminster, left parents scrambling to notify each other, and left residents worrying about the safety of the city's drinking water.

Westminster's dozen public schools are expected to reopen today, school officials said.

Edwin Singer, director of the county's Bureau of Environmental Health, said he has had no reports of increased gastrointestinal illnesses. He said, however, his department handled a crush of calls yesterday, mainly from restaurants, physicians and dentists.

But many people still want answers about the local response to the problem.

"We are disappointed that [Westminster officials] did not know who to contact," said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Many other agencies contacted this agency over the weekend.

"There were several other major incidents [during the weekend], and those operators knew exactly who to contact," McIntire said, referring to a large sewage spill in Baltimore, another in Salisbury and a diesel fuel spill into the harbor in Canton.

"The city should have known what to do," McIntire said. "But they initially left a phone message for an inspector who is on leave."

After an unrelenting downpour on Saturday, water treatment plant operators noticed a spike in turbidity levels - a condition that could allow parasites to contaminate the water - early Sunday.

"There was a potential for as much as 300,000 gallons to be contaminated," McIntire said. "They exceeded standard turbidity levels for five to six hours into Sunday morning."

The standard turbidity level allowed is 0.3; Westminster's water plant registered up to 2.0 for several hours Sunday, said Thomas B. Beyard, city director of planning and public works.

"You wouldn't notice with the human eye or be able to taste any difference," he said. "But the fear with turbidity is" that chlorine used to treat the water will not destroy parasites that bond to the sediment that has roiled from the bottom of the city's reservoir.

Plant operators, who are required to notify MDE of such incidents, said yesterday they were unable to reach emergency officials at MDE until Monday to review their data.

McIntire said MDE meets with system operators frequently during the year and regularly updates jurisdictions with emergency numbers.

"It escapes me why they didn't reach us," said McIntire, who added that MDE also will conduct an investigation. He said the agency was not notified of Westminster's water concerns until noon Monday.

MDE officials then reviewed the plant's data and urged the city to issue a water advisory about 3:15 p.m. The city treats an average 2.3 million gallons a day and pumps it to about 8,000 customers.

"We can take a situation like this and use the experience to make things better," Beyard said. "The reality is this was not a black-or-white situation. Even MDE regarded this as precautionary at best."

But the precautionary nature of the advisory did little to ease residents' concerns yesterday about late-day notifications made to news media outlets and public agencies, such as the public school system.

Officials with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said local jurisdictions grapple with the most effective means to make mass emergency notifications.

"With more and more people watching cable, it becomes increasingly difficult to get [these messages] to people," said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for MEMA. "It's a recurring problem."

Around the city yesterday, residents noticed warning signs at drinking fountains in businesses and public offices.

Bill Schroeder heard the advisory at 6:30 a.m. on a local radio station and stopped on the way to his Main Street deli to pick up a couple of extra gallons of distilled water.

"I basically keep a couple gallons around, and I got a couple more to make soups this morning," he said. "You don't want to boil [tainted] water, because if you have sediment, you don't want chicken soup that looks like it's beef-based."

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