Burlington officials reflect on E. coli discovery that prompted recent water quality advisory

An E. coli scare that prompted a “boil water” advisory in Burlington last week was anything but water under the bridge when Burlington’s city council held its latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

During that evening’s proceedings, the council received a post-mortem on this two-day crisis from Burlington’s water resources director Bob Patterson, whose staff had discovered the contamination which touched off the water quality advisory.

Patterson told the council that the trace of E. coli which triggered the city’s response came from one of 203 sampling sites that the city has on private property in the area served by its water system. Patterson noted that state and federal regulations require the city to analyze water samples from 60 of these test sites each month. He added that, this month, one of the samples came from an outdoor spigot near an apartment complex in the downtown area.

The city’s water services director acknowledged that some water which his staff obtained from this spigot last Tuesday ultimately tested positive for E. coli when it was analyzed at the lab. This positive reading obligated his staff to bring back a second sample for testing, which Patterson said also revealed the presence of this potentially harmful bacteria.

“This is a very rare occurrence to have an E. coli positive test,” Patterson went on to inform the council. “We did not think it was a widespread event, but we had to follow what our state guidance was.”

Patterson said that the city was compelled to issue a “boil water” notice under state regulations. It wasn’t until 8:00 p.m. on Friday that the city lifted the advisory once Patterson and his colleagues had conclusively determined the problem was limited to this single location.

In the meantime, the city’s water resources director said that he and his staff were also required to take a number of other measures to ensure that the potential contamination didn’t endanger the wellbeing of the public.

“Our crews immediately went out, and we removed the meter at that location,” he recalled. “We flushed that service line with a super-chlorinated solution…and at the same time, we contacted the property manager and made arrangements to replace that exterior faucet.”

Patterson said that this particular faucet was of a “no-freeze” variety that leaves the spigot free of water in winter. In this case, the empty nozzle seems to have attracted some six-legged squatters, as evident from the insect remains that Patterson said emerged from the faucet when it was flushed.

As minor as this issue may seem in retrospect, Paterson acknowledged that the spigot’s contamination has prompted the state to issue a notice of violation to the city of Burlington.

The water resources director added that he and his staff now have to submit a formal analysis on the incident to state regulators. He said that he and his colleagues are reviewing their water sampling sites as well as the procedures they use to test the local water supply.

In either case, Patterson assured the council that the contamination never extended beyond the privately owned apparatus and posed no threat to Burlington’s own utility infrastructure.
“And more importantly,” chimed in councilman Jim Butler, “it was not our core water supply. Some of the misinformation out there said that our water supply was contaminated.”

The council also received an update on the city’s outreach efforts during the scare from Morgan Lasater, the city’s community engagement manager. Lasater recalled that the city publicized the “boil water” advisory on TV and radio. It also issued news releases, posted alerts on social media, and used the county government’s notification system to reach individual residents. In the meantime, the county’s health department contacted some 806 area businesses about the potential public health emergency.

Lasater acknowledged that the public response to the notice was a bit overwhelming, but not overly hostile.

“We got some grumbles, for sure, from the business community because, obviously, there’s some economic loss associated with this,” she recalled. “But I think, generally, there was understanding, and the message got out pretty well.”

Meanwhile, Harold Owen alluded to some sectors that may have been secretly pleased by the impact that last week’s advisory had on the restaurants which draw water from Burlington’s utility system.

“The restaurant owners in Graham said ‘thank you’ on Friday,” he added in apparent reference to the boom in business that the eateries in this neighboring city experienced.

See earlier coverage from last week:

Burlington’s contaminated water problems have ripple effect: https://alamancenews.com/burlingtons-contaminated-water-problems-have-rippling-effect/

Boil water advisory lifted: https://alamancenews.com/boil-water-advisory-lifted/