Oak Bluffs water fouled
Coliform contamination requires water to be boiled
A boil water order issued Friday by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to the Oak Bluffs Water District could be lifted as early as tomorrow if a water sample taken Wednesday is free of coliform bacteria, as samples taken Monday and Tuesday were.
The early week results are good news for residents who have been forced to boil water or rely on bottled water, and for beleaguered water district staff and town officials, who have been besieged with complaints about the lack of notification to water customers, and continuing difficulty getting information.
The DEP requires that water tests taken on three consecutive days show no bacteria, before it will lift the boil order imposed late Friday.
Tests taken Monday and Tuesday from Oak Bluffs wells, taps, and water distribution systems were free of bacteria. Results from yesterday's tests will not be known until late today.
Anatomy of warning
Water superintendent Thomas Degnan got the first indication that something was wrong on Thursday morning, September 24, with a message on his answering machine from Envirotech Labs in Sandwich. Routine monthly sampling of the town water system showed the presence of coliform bacteria in the water. Coliform bacteria are naturally present in the environment and are used by environmental officials as an indicator that other, potentially more harmful, bacteria may be present.
At 10 am that Thursday morning, Mr. Degnan and his staff began chlorinating and flushing the town's water system, according to long-established protocols that determine step by step how the department responds to the presence of coliform bacteria.
"As soon as I got that notification, I went into chlorine mode," Mr. Degnan said. "I started shocking the system."
Chlorination kills coliform and other harmful bacteria. Flushing the system, primarily by opening hydrants throughout the town, draws the chlorination through the entire water infrastructure.
Also according to the protocol, Mr. Degnan immediately notified DEP of the problem and began taking new samples from the water distribution system, both upstream and downstream from the sites where bacteria was detected.
On Friday, Sept. 25, Envirotech notified Mr. Degnan that routine samples taken two days earlier also tested positive for coliform bacteria. After studying the results and speaking with staff, DEP phoned the water department at 4:15 pm and imposed a "boil water order." That order remained in effect at press time yesterday evening, and is not likely to be lifted before tomorrow.
The boil water order triggered another set of protocols for the water department. The protocols are reviewed and approved periodically by DEP.
"We did everything by the book," Mr. Degnan said.
Beginning at 4:20 pm, the water department staff called the police department, fire department, board of health, local radio station WMVY, and the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, according to a step-by-step record of his actions compiled by Mr. Degnan. Also called or faxed were communications outlets including PlumTV, MVTV, The Martha's Vineyard Times, and the Vineyard Gazette. Also notified were Island Elderly Housing, and the Dukes County Communications Center.
Water department staff, helped by police officers, then began distributing flyers to downtown businesses, including restaurants, and posting flyers on area bulletin boards.
Emergency services coordinator Peter Martell helped arrange a shipment of bottled water to the Island. More than 25,000 bottles of Poland Spring water arrived on pallets, and by Sunday afternoon, emergency management personnel established a distribution center in front of the town library, offering a case of water to each Oak Bluffs household. Bottled water distribution continued through Wednesday, and will continue as needed.
Getting the word out
Oak Bluffs residents, businesses, and some town officials expressed frustration and anger this week about how the water department notified the public.
Health agent Shirley Fauteux, a key player in the response to the water problems, said she did not know about the warning until 10 pm Saturday morning, when she arrived at her office and found 30 people waiting to see her. The health department closed Friday at 4 pm, half an hour before the water department sent a fax advising her of the boil water order. Town administrator Michael Dutton, also a key player, heard about the water problems on Saturday morning while running an errand.
It wasn't until Monday that Ms. Fauteux said she was able to get detailed information out to restaurants about how the order affected food and drink preparation. "I think that we all learned a lot of lessons," she said. "Our biggest issue is communication."
Mary Ann White, an Oak Bluffs resident who lives on Head of the Pond Road, didn't get word of the water problems until Sunday evening. "I think it's outrageous," she said. "I don't think it's acceptable at all. This isn't the big city. They've got to find a solution if this happens again."
Literally thousands of people first learned of the water problems Friday night in text messages or emails from Sharky's Cantina. Owner J.B. Blau keeps a list of about 3,000 mobile phone numbers of customers who want to learn about discounts or special promotions. Because he only signs people up for the text message list in the off-season, that list is made up mostly of Islanders. The thought crossed his mind before last week's water problems that the list could come in handy in an emergency. So in addition to messages advising customers that his restaurant was using bottled water, soda, and ice from sources outside Oak Bluffs, he started disseminating news of the water problems.
"I kind of realized it was a difficult time to get the word out," Mr. Blau said. "After talking to a couple of friends who had no idea about it, I decided to let everyone on our list know. We tried to get all our information off the sheet that was handed to us by police. We tried to stay out of the official business. It was just to notify people of details that had been handed to us by the town."
Town officials were well aware that Sharky's was proving an effective way to get the word out. By Sunday, Mr. Dutton included the restaurant on his distribution list for news releases and updates normally sent to media outlets. Mr. Dutton acknowledged that the lack of information left room for error.
"There was a lot of inaccurate information being disseminated," said Mr. Dutton. "When there's an information vacuum, rumor and misinformation is going to spread like wildfire."
The Boston Globe reported incorrectly that the precautionary flushing began Wednesday and the boil water order was issued Saturday. The Gazette reported incorrectly on its web site that the water was contaminated with fecal coliform, a much more serious contaminant.
Mr. Dutton said the water department and other town departments did everything they were supposed to do, but while many town officials eventually were notified, the town had no effective way to get the word out to customers.
"That gap was obvious," Mr. Dutton said. "This is going to be an incredible lesson for us. Fortunately there wasn't anything terrible in the system."
He pointed out that in Oak Bluffs, the water department is almost completely separate from the rest of town government, with its own management structure and billing system, reporting more directly to DEP than town officials.
"The first thing we have to do is have a better communication between the water department and the town of Oak Bluffs," Mr. Dutton said. "The water department needs to have a much better public information system. I think they're already starting to work on that."
Mr. Degnan said the water department is considering a mass mailing, asking customers to volunteer email addresses so they can receive future water warnings. Among other changes to be considered are using flashing road signs, and town wide siren alerts.
The boil water order was particularly inconvenient for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Tim Walsh, hospital CEO, said he received a telephone call at 4:30 pm Friday from the OBWD telling him about the order.
Mr. Walsh said his most immediate concern was hand washing, a constant fact of life in the hospital, and the need to take stock of the hospital's supply of hand sanitizer. With no water available, Purel hand sanitizer was made available throughout the hospital building
The hospital began working Friday night to arrange for patients to receive dialysis treatment off-Island because the dialysis filtration system is not effective against bacteria. By Monday, a nurse who volunteered to drive a hospital van was transporting the five patients who must receive regular treatment to the mainland for dialysis.
The boil water order was also troublesome for the hospital kitchen, which turned to bottled water and boiling. Ice machines also needed to be emptied and sanitized.
Mr. Degnan said yesterday the cause of the bacteria contamination is still unknown. He said it could be related to the seasonal drop in customers or the unauthorized opening of a water hydrant on a street.
"It wasn't at the wells, it wasn't at the tank," he said, referring to the town's water tower. "It was out in the system. That's telling me it's something out in the distribution system."
Mr. Degnan has had an exasperating week. He began overseeing the Oak Bluffs water district just six months ago.
"It was baptism by fire," Mr. Degnan said. "It's a good and a bad thing. We found the faults in some of the emergency planning, some of the networking."