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City moving forward on examining future treatment possibilities

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Around 50 residents crowded into Council Chambers at City Hall Wednesday as the Artesia City Council took its first step toward addressing the community water system’s future after a second E. coli contamination in as many months.

The city learned Wednesday afternoon that the boil water alert issued Saturday would remain in effect until at least Friday after total coliforms were once again detected in one test sample. E. coli was not present, but the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau (DWB) requires two consecutive days of testing clear of any and all contaminants before it will lift a boil water order.

The issue of coliforms is a frustrating one, as their presence is likely a side effect of the Water Department’s efforts to eliminate E. coli contamination, which include opening fire hydrants around town.

“We typically think we cause that, because we’re flushing the system trying to draw some chlorine in to take care of the E. coli, and you end up causing a disturbance of everything in that system,” Mayor Phillip Burch told the Daily Press Wednesday morning.

The mayor opened Wednesday evening’s meeting by making clear the council was not yet prepared to make a decision on possible changes to the city’s water system; rather, the council’s intent was to instruct appropriate staff to move forward with enlisting the services of an engineering firm. The selected firm will then be tasked with delivering various options regarding possible permanent treatment of the city’s water, along with their associated costs, pros and cons.

The mayor said the city has advised the DWB that it plans to be prepared to make its decision on Artesia’s water future by mid-October, giving staff three weeks to gather and review information, and the council its regularly-scheduled Oct. 10 meeting to decide.

Burch also said the city has twice asked the state what its action would be if the council ultimately elects not to treat the local water system on a permanent basis; the DWB offered no response either time.

“I also made the comment to them that, before July 15, we have somewhere between 70 and 80 years of no instances of E. coli in the water of the City of Artesia,” said Burch. “I said, ‘That’s pretty good data; is that going to be considered?’ They didn’t answer that, either.”

Following the resolution of the community’s first-ever boil water order in July, the city held a town hall at the Artesia Center, at which the majority of residents who spoke out did so against the option of treating the water system with chlorine.

While Artesia is one of just a few communities in New Mexico that do not use chlorine as a regular means of disinfection, the chemical comes with a laundry list of potential side effects and, as councilor Kent Bratcher pointed out Wednesday, is by no means a “silver bullet” when it comes to the prevention of bacterial contamination.

Some residents at Wednesday’s meeting reiterated their desire that the city not opt for chlorination.

“If you’ve never had chlorine poisoning, take it from someone who has, you don’t want it,” said Jerry Fanning. “I do not want chlorine.”

“Chlorine is a corrosive,” said William Kalka. “If we put chlorine in our water, it is going to have an effect on the metals throughout the system. These are the kinds of things we need to consider.”

Others, such as local Subway restaurant owner Pat Kunkel, took the standpoint that if Artesia opts for no treatment, future contaminations could continue.

“The July incident cost us over $12,000 in lost income and food that we had to throw out,” said Kunkel. “We knew what to do this time, but I hope you consider that this could happen again. If you don’t know the source, this is going to happen again, and in order to mitigate that, we need some sort of chemical.”

The two boil water orders have come with a hefty price tag for most in the community. Even restaurants that were able to remain open while making the necessary adjustments were forced to discard or temporarily not offer food items washed in or prepared with city water, as well as disinfect any appliances that utilized the water. The Artesia Public Schools, after closing Monday and Tuesday to make arrangements, also had to purchase bottled water, hand sanitizer, and alternative cafeteria food for students and staff until the order can be lifted.

Several residents questioned the council regarding the source of the contamination. But that, as the mayor stated in Wednesday’s Daily Press and reiterated at the meeting, is essentially impossible to pinpoint.

Burch said to borrow the words of Infrastructure Director Byron Landfair, “short of finding a dead bird in a water pipe somewhere,” there’s no way to know. In July, the city was able to reasonably, if not definitively, conclude that the well that yielded a positive E. coli sample on 26th Street was also likely the source, as it had been recently removed and reinstalled for repairs.

This time, however, the positive samples yielded from a non-well test site.

“(A dead bird) is a source, and you can say, ‘There it is, and now we know,’” said the mayor. “We’ve found no dead birds in pipes.

“We feel comfortable that our wells are not the source. So now we’re dealing with something that’s in a pipe system underground. Our crews have driven alleys, they’ve driven streets looking for leaks or breaks in lines that may give access to any type of bacteria; in some cases, in the area where we’ve gotten a positive, they’ve peeked over fences to see if they can see anything that would give us a clue of a source, and we have not found that.”

Citizens also questioned the council on the city’s decision not to inform the public after the initial positive result was received Thursday evening. NMED protocol states that, upon receipt of an E. coli positive, a second test must first be conducted to eliminate the possibility of error before a boil water order is issued.

Burch said that while the city ultimately opted to follow that protocol, in hindsight, they understand the public’s frustration.

“After quite a bit of discussion, our committee decided not to advise the public that there was one test, because people would react based on that, and we had no indication we were going to have another positive on Saturday,” said the mayor. “In retrospect, if it ever happened again, I think we would give more consideration to telling the public, ‘Here’s what happened, you don’t have to do a thing, but we’re just telling you you might want to get ready.’

“We didn’t make that decision, and I’ll take full responsibility for that.”

Other residents in attendance Wednesday offered the council suggestions on alternatives to chlorine treatment, including Jeremy Kern, manager of Coats Plumbing, who spoke regarding the MIOX Corporation’s sodium hypochlorite treatment systems.

Kern said both Albuquerque and Lake Arthur use such systems to treat their water.

“It utilizes salt, so it’s safe for employees to use, has the least amount of corrosion compared to chlorine, and is significantly safer – there’s no storage of chemicals, just storage of salt,” Kern said.

He told the council that while the up-front cost would likely be greater than with other treatment options, the long-term savings are reported to make the system worth the investment.

The mayor urged Kern to speak with Landfair.

Bernadette Granger, deputy district director for the Office of Congressman Steve Pearce, was also in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting and stated Pearce’s office was available to assist with anything the city may need.

Councilor Raul Rodriguez concluded the meeting by assuring the public the city and its staff are doing everything in their power to resolve the situation and asking for patience and support.

He said that while the boil water orders have been a devastation of sorts in Artesia due to the fact the community has never had to deal with such issues before, people should keep in mind the situations faced by victims of the recent hurricanes.

“We need to work together, we don’t need negative comments out in the public,” said Rodriguez. “Understand, we as a council don’t have the answers – we’re not experts, we’re not scientists or biologists, we’re not the Drinking Water Bureau; we can only answer questions according to the information that we get, and we ask that the community support us and help us.

“We’re going to have a town hall meeting, and I’d like to see two- or three-hundred people there; let’s hear their perspective, because we are going to be faced with a big decision and we need that support, we need that input. Negativity just tears the community apart. Pray for us and keep us in mind.”

“There are very few things in the city that impact every individual; we’ve had two of them since July 15,” said Burch. “We’re aware of that, and we want to make the right decision that’s in the best interests of the city going forward.”