The Tisbury board of health opened Vineyard Haven Harbor to swimming at noon Tuesday, July 27, after results of a water sample taken Monday showed safe bacteria levels.
Tom Pachico, Tisbury health inspector, closed the beaches early Saturday morning following storm-related discharge of raw sewage into the harbor. The swimming ban covered harbor water from Owen Park to the Tisbury Shell station at 40 Beach Road.
A sewage pump near the police station malfunctioned during a storm Friday evening, July 23, causing raw sewage to flow into the town’s storm drain system, which runs into the harbor.
“One of the circuit breakers let go during the thunder and lightning storm,” Mr. Pachico said. Sewage overflowed a steel street cover onto the street. “It overflowed from before midnight (Friday) until about 7:30 in the morning (Saturday). The streets were full of raw sewage.”
Mr. Pachico said he learned of the overflow at about 7 am Saturday morning and immediately called the Communications Center, which was also experiencing problems because of lightning strikes that damaged much of their radio equipment. He said the town’s Department of Public Works was at work repairing the facility and cleaning the streets when he arrived at the scene.
Mr. Pachico said he talked with a police officer who said he observed sewage overflowing at midnight. The health officer said this week that he questions why the problem was not reported to the communications center.
Tisbury police chief Dan Hanavan said he could not comment specifically about what happened, because he has not had a chance to question the officers.
“It’s hard for me to believe that someone saw it and didn’t call somebody, but I haven’t been able to ask those officers because they’ve been off duty,” Chief Hanavan said. “If there’s a problem in the road, or around town, the police normally go through the call center.”
John Thayer, a member of the town Department of Public Works (DPW) board of commissioners, said no alarm was sent to DPW personnel who monitor the sewage system, because the lightning strike destroyed the entire pumping station and all electrical circuitry, including circuitry that would send an alarm if the pump malfunctioned.
“There isn’t an alarm for the entire panel being shut down,” Mr. Thayer said. “The breakers trip and you’re done.”
Mr. Thayer said DPW commissioner Fred Lapiana is considering an alarm system that works on a mechanical float. “The float switch just goes up and down, it isn’t mechanical, it doesn’t require electricity,” Mr. Thayer said. “It’s basically a high water alarm.”
Mr. Lapiana did not return calls requesting comment.
The health department tested harbor water daily. On Saturday, water samples tested positive for a bacteria that indicates fecal coliform is present, according to assistant health inspector Maura Valley. The results of the samples taken Sunday and Monday also showed a level of bacteria slightly higher than considered safe. The tests take 18 hours to complete.
Lifeguards on duty at Owen Park during the closure made sure no one went into the water. Signs posted along the beach warned people that swimming in the waters could cause illness.
Ingesting water with unsafe levels of fecal coliform can cause gastrointestinal problems including cramps, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea, or infection of open cuts. In rare cases, the illness may cause dehydration that can be life-threatening for people who are already weakened by other health problems.