Water scare `a blessing in disguise'

`Benign event' at Westminster treatment facility prompts calls for better communications

October 13, 2005|By GINA DAVIS AND MARY GAIL HARE | GINA DAVIS AND MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTERS

Although problems with its water system turned out to be what Westminster officials described as a "benign event," public health experts warned yesterday that the city's troubles could have been far more dangerous and emphasized that communities must have clear channels of communication.

"This wasn't an outbreak, but it could have been," said Thomas A. Burke, an associate professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Luckily, we're not talking about major illnesses this time, but we're talking about the need to improve communications."

Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said yesterday that he has uncovered communication gaps in the city's emergency procedures, which this week resulted in a delay of 1 1/2 days before the superintendent of the city's water treatment plant notified the Maryland Department of the Environment. The superintendent left a message with the Carroll County Health Department on Monday, but the offices were closed for Columbus Day.

"The biggest complaint from citizens has been the lag time in notifying them," Ferguson said. "Maybe this whole incident, which was relatively benign from a health standpoint, is a blessing in disguise that we can use as a backdrop as we review our whole emergency plan."

After a torrential rain Saturday, Westminster water treatment plant operators noticed a spike in turbidity levels - a condition that could allow parasites to contaminate the water - early Sunday. Plant operators, who are required to notify MDE of such incidents, said they were unable to reach emergency officials at MDE until Monday afternoon to review their data.

At about 3:15 p.m. Monday, MDE officials urged the city - which treats an average of 2.3 million gallons a day and pumps it to about 8,000 customers - to issue an advisory to boil drinking water.

In the ensuing criticism about notification, officials differed about whose responsibility it was to contact whom. The confusion meant that the county's health department was the last to be notified and learned about the advisory only after school officials called for guidance.

Ferguson said he is reviewing the city's response and will make the results public at a council meeting in the near future.

"We want to walk everybody through the process and look at where to improve it," Ferguson said. "You do what you can in these situations. We can't call 8,000 homes and businesses on the public water system."

Within weeks, however, agencies in Westminster and throughout Carroll County will be able to telephone emergency messages to thousands of residents in a timely manner. With a homeland security grant, the county has purchased a $110,000 Reverse 911 system that can be programmed to make multiple emergency calls to specified areas.

Operators are training on the system next week, and it will be in use shortly thereafter, said Bill Martin, emergency management coordinator for Carroll County.

"This would have been a golden opportunity to use this system," he said.

Kellogg J. Schwab, co-director at the Center for Water and Health at the Bloomberg School, said a spike in turbidity indicates that the treatment process has been compromised.

"Turbidity, a major indicator of water quality, means particles have broken through and could get into the distribution system," Schwab said. "The delay in notification was not good, but even a late notice might still be effective."

In 1993, about 400,000 people in Milwaukee became sick from the city's failure to address turbidity at a water treatment plant, Schwab said.

"Communication is a tough challenge for all utility systems," he said. "It is hard to disseminate information. We have an amazing system for taking tremendous volumes of water, treating it and piping it into houses. But, when people open the tap, that water does not say `safe' or `unsafe.'"

A one-minute rolling boil is usually sufficient to destroy organisms that cause illness.

Edwin Singer, director of the county's Bureau of Environmental Health, said he has had no reports of increased gastrointestinal illnesses typically associated with tainted water, nor does he expect any, because the water tested clear early Tuesday. People who have ingested pathogens usually become sick within hours, he said.

"This all worked out with no major issues, but there could have been serious problems," Singer said. "This was all about poor communication, and we need to get that resolved."

Singer plans to meet with the city and MDE to discuss water issues and emergency procedures. He also will discuss water, particularly possible contaminants, with other towns in the county. All but one of Carroll's eight municipalities operate water systems. Sykesville in South Carroll relies on the county's system.

"I want to take up this issue with all the towns," Singer said. "If it can happen in Westminster, it can happen with any of the towns."

When Westminster issued the boil-water advisory Monday afternoon, officials contacted radio and television stations and the Carroll County Emergency Operations Center. The advisory led to a closing of a dozen schools, medical offices and local businesses.

While Burke said it's hard to second-guess a jurisdiction's actions in the heat of an emergency, it is crucial for cities to have clearly defined plans.

"There is never an opportune time to have an emergency," he said. "You need to have a system for rapid communication."

Homeland security efforts to secure water supplies could help local jurisdictions respond more effectively to natural crises, Schwab said.

"We are much more likely to have a rain event than a terrorism event," he said. "But the safeguards in place for terrorism help with the challenges given us by Mother Nature."

gina.davis@baltsun.com mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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