Oak Bluffs water supply contamination costly and inconvenient

Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lifted a “boil water” order for Oak Bluffs at 11:30 am, Wednesday morning. The reversal followed an onsite inspection by a DEP environmental analyst who determined that the source of bacterial contamination was contained to one well near Lagoon Pond, and that well is now isolated from the public water system.

“The Lagoon Pond well field is currently off line until further evaluation,” water district commissioners said in a statement issued Wednesday. “The district has also begun adding a low dose of chlorine to the system as a preventative measure. In addition, bacteria sampling is being conducted to verify water quality.”

Town officials expressed relief and scrambled to get the word out to residents and businesses, while apologizing for the inconvenience of the last few days.

“We’re certainly very relieved to have the boil water order lifted,” town administrator Bob Whritenour said Wednesday. “It was done in conjunction with DEP, when they visited the Island and found the problem, as it turns out, was very localized. The impact on the overall system is minimal. Residents can be confident that the quality of water in Oak Bluffs is second to none.”

A bottled water distribution center outside the Oak Bluffs library shut down operations at 1:30 Wednesday, after distributing hundreds of cases of water during the previous two days.

DEP issued a boil water order for Oak Bluffs Water District users on Monday, after bacterial contamination of the town water supply was detected in multiple water samples.

The bacteria detected, enterococci, is an indicator organism that signals the probable presence of other bacteria that can cause illness.

Oak Bluffs selectmen held an emergency meeting at 12:30 pm Monday to discuss the DEP action. Following the meeting, the town used the Code Red emergency telephone/email notification system to alert residents to the order.

Residents and businesses were instructed to boil any water used for drinking, cooking, or food preparation, after tests showed a higher than acceptable level of bacteria in the water supply.

Over the next two days, town officials waited anxiously for the results of new water tests.

Hands on inspection

DEP environmental analyst Terry Dayin inspected the town’s Lagoon Pond well field Wednesday morning with Paul Provost, an engineer with Weston and Sampson, an environmental consulting firm. That firm has operated the Oak Bluffs water system since the departure of water district superintendent Tom Degnan nearly a year ago.

Ms. Dayin said it was clear that the source of contamination is limited to the Lagoon Pond wellfield, which is a large well fed by five smaller wells. Test results received Tuesday night, from samples tested Monday, showed none of the town’s four other wells were contaminated.

“Because they have enough water and enough sources available to leave that well off line, we’re okay with lifting that order,” Ms. Dayin said.

She said the specific source of bacterial contamination is not known, but additional testing is underway for each of the satellite wells to determine if groundwater got into the system following an unusual amount of rain in May and June.

Last steps

Oak Bluffs health officials and the DEP advised residents to take specific actions to ensure their water is safe, after the boil water order was lifted. They asked residents to run cold water faucets for five minutes, and hot water faucets until the hot water holding tank is completely drained. For a typical home with a 40-gallon hot water tank, running hot water for 15 minutes should drain the tank. For homes with an 80-gallon tank, it will take 30 minutes.

They also suggest running a dishwasher empty through one cycle, flushing refrigerator water dispensers, and replacing filters. They advise discarding any ice made by automatic ice makers for 24 hours.

Restaurants also have to take precautions. Equipment connected to internal water systems, such as beverage machines, coffee makers, ice machines and dishwashers must be flushed and sanitized. Filters in those machines must be replaced.

Water worry

The boil water order affected the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, hotels, inns, and restaurants.

On Monday, Tim Walsh, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital chief executive officer, said the hospital was following established procedures. “The hospital prepares for emergencies regularly as part of our standard operating procedure,” he said. “Thanks to a very capable staff, we were able to respond to the water crisis quickly and efficiently.”

The hospital plan includes replacing all drinking water with bottled water, turning off and removing ice from all ice machines and the purchase of 250 pounds of ice from an Edgartown source. While additional bottled water supplies are on the way, the hospital keeps a minimum of five days drinking water for patients and staff on hand at all times.

The fact that the order only affects consumption of water mitigated the amount of inconvenience and added work for the staff. “We’re okay,” Mr. Walsh said.

The water restrictions proved a burden for Oak Bluffs restaurants, which could not use ice machines or soda dispensers on two of the hottest days of the summer.

“It’s been difficult,” said Marc Hanover, who owns Linda Jean’s, a popular eatery on Circuit Avenue. “I had to buy soda and ice. There’s a substantial cost to that, and inconvenience.”

He said he was very relieved to hear from town officials that the boil water order was lifted.

“We’re cleaning out the ice machines, and flushing everything out,” Mr. Hanover said. “I’ve got two ice machines that I’ve got to drain and flush, and in this kind of weather they don’t make ice that fast, so I may be buying more ice.”

He said local suppliers were able to supply ice and soda to meet the sudden demand, and he knew of no shortages.