It is highly probable that any of the bacteria that required the Kent County Water Authority to issue a “boil water” advisory over the weekend never left the 2.1 million gallon tank where it was detected.
Tests outside of the tank – one of six operated by the water system – did not find the presence of fecal coliforms or E. Coli, said Timothy Brown, general manager of the authority. Yesterday morning, he explained that because the tank is part of the system, the system is considered contaminated until three days of testing indicate it is free of the bacteria. The earliest the “boil water” advisory could be lifted is this Wednesday. The tank has already been taken offline and a diver entered the tank yesterday in an effort to determine the source of contamination.
Brown said there were no signs that the tank’s security had been breached. Locks had not been tampered with and air vents were being checked.
As for E. Coli, Brown said, “It’s an indication of something else, potentially of human contamination.”
He could not say if it is animal or human waste, although they can be a source of E. Coli.
He said the authority received a call from one of its customers yesterday that they had symptoms associated with disease-causing organisms, which could include diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches and fatigue. But such symptoms are not limited to the effects of E. Coli and could very well be something else. There has been no E. Coli found in Kent’s tap water and there were no confirmed instances of illness caused by the water as of yesterday afternoon.
Nonetheless, the advisory released Sunday afternoon had some people who were not using Kent water taking unwarranted extra precautions. Further complicating the question of who was affected is that Kent County provides water to about 3,900 Warwick customers who are billed for that water through the Warwick Water Division.
Six Warwick schools – Toll Gate, Winman, Drum Rock, Scott, Cedar Hill and the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center – are serviced by Kent County Water. Kent Hospital is also within the service area.
Upon learning of the “boil water” advisory, School Superintendent Richard D’Agostino activated the department’s connect-ed notification system. The schools that were affected were named and parents were advised to tell their children that safe water would be available at the schools even though students were also urged to use hand sanitizer after washing their hands.
“There’s no day off,” D’Agostino said.
He said that the kitchens at Toll Gate and Winman, which also provide meals for outlining schools, were paying close attention to the use of water in food preparation.
At the Honey Dew shop in Apponaug, Manager Amanda Tsoumakas went through a check-off sheet from a corporate representative who had verified the safe water temperatures in all coffee-making equipment and told the Beacon ice was being delivered from stores outside the affected area.
Tsoumakas said she had been drinking the water straight from the tap without any impact.
“I’m alive,” she joked. “I may have a little glow to me later.”
At Kent Hospital, ice was being tossed and water was being boiled.
“We’re doing everything everybody else is doing,” said hospital spokesman James Beardsworth. He said the hospital has 12 pallets of bottled water on supply in the event of such situations and was being distributed to patients and staff. He said ice was being supplied by other Care New England facilities and outside vendors.
While only a portion of Warwick was impacted by the “boil water” advisory, the Warwick Water Division and City Hall have been inundated with calls.
“If you get your bill from Warwick utility, you’re a Warwick customer,” Debbie Cardoso assured one caller after establishing the caller didn’t live in Potowomut. She wasn’t alone in answering the calls that came two and three at a time yesterday morning.
“E. Coli and fecal [coliform] is the most feared phone call,” said Warwick’s Water Division director Daniel O’Rourke. In his 21 years with the division, Warwick has never issued such an advisory and to his knowledge, it has never been issued in the city’s history.
O’Rourke said, under the Safe Water Drinking Act that is administered by the EPA with the Department of Health, the division is required to conduct 80 water tests monthly. Generally, he said, the division performs 90 to 105 tests.
“My theory is to err on the side of caution,” O’Rourke said.
“All things we do comes down to that – the quality of the water we’re providing to the people,” he said.
O’Rourke said the water is tested for total coliform. He said there are occasional “positive hits” that usually occur during warmer weather that require further testing. He said those “hits” could be related to areas where water usage is down and it is being retained in the pipes for an extended period. He said the division is in the process of “refining” its flushing program to ensure safe water.
“It is the healthiest preventive maintenance you can do for the system,” he said.
Brown at Kent Water said the authority would conduct its twice annual flushing starting next month.
Brown said the tank, which is tested every month, was tested on Sept. 17. That test returned with a positive total coliform count. That sample was then further tested, and water samples were taken “up stream” and “down stream” of the tank. The water in the tank is from the Providence Water Supply Board. In addition to buying water from Providence, Kent has its own wells.
Brown did not say what would become of the water in the tank. He did say taking it offline would not affect the supply to the system or the system’s pressure, which is critical to ensuring fire protection.
Brown said the authority conferred with health officials and did not delay in issuing the “boil water” advisory as soon as the tests confirmed E. Coli. A press release was issued Sunday afternoon. Brown said the authority is exploring means to alert customers more promptly, possibly with a system similar to that used by schools.
Mayor Scott Avedisian was not pleased with the notification. In an e-mail, he said, “The whole notification system was not good. We will be having discussions with the Public Utilities Commission about the notification process.”
In its release, the Kent Authority said that state and local health authorities recommend water from drinking or cooking “be boiled vigorously for one minute.” It also advised that infants and young children not be bathed in the water as they might swallow it accidentally.
In a release, the Department of Health recommends boiling water being used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and cooking.
The department further recommended restaurants and food handlers in the affected area should use bottled or boiled water and purchased ice for food preparation until further notice. School children in the affected area should bring bottled or boiled and cooled water to school with them to drink.
HEALTH expects the boil water advisory to be in place for a minimum of four days – until the water authorities have three consecutive days of water test results that are within acceptable standards. Customers of the affected areas are asked to contact neighbors who may not be aware of this advisory.
For information, call Kent County Water Authority at 821-9300. For general information about drinking water, contact HEALTH's Information Line at 222-5960, Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For general facts and information about boil water advisories, visit www.health.ri.gov/publications/instructions/HouseholdBoilWaterGuidance.pdf. For guidelines for food establishments during and after a boil water advisory, visit www.health.ri.gov/environment/dwq/boiladvisory.php.
The boil water advisory does not affect Kent County Water Authority customers in the Oaklawn section of Cranston or customers in the Brookfield Plat in West Warwick on the following streets: Alden Drive, Brookdale Drive, #3 - #61 Crossland Rd., Bambino Field on Crossland Road, Enfield Drive, Fernwood Drive, Glendale Drive, Hopedale Drive, Janet Drive, Linden Drive, Maryland Drive, Maywood Drive, Midway Drive, Oakland Drive, Overhill Drive, #855 - #1027 Providence St., Shortway Drive, Steven Drive, Suncrest Drive, and Woodland Drive.