New E. coli tests sent to lab

Mike Erwin

An emergency boil order for Pawhuska water users remained in effect Tuesday, five days after E. coli contamination was discovered in the municipal water supply.

Pawhuska water samples tested Friday afternoon revealed the presence of the bacteria, according to officials with Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality.

DEQ agents spent most of Monday working with staff from the city’s water plant. More local water samples were taken to the state lab for testing. City of Pawhuska officials said they expected to receive a report from DEQ Tuesday afternoon.

“They will then advise as to the corrective measures to be taken,” a city water department spokesperson said, adding water samples will continue to be gathered and tested.

Officials said updated information about the water situation will be posted on the city of Pawhuska FaceBook page as well as the city website.

Tuesday, Osage County Emergency Management Director Jerry Roberts said state agency’s testing of the latest local water samples is expected to take 24 hours.

“They took the samples to Stillwater to be tested late Monday afternoon, so a report probably will not be made until after 4 o’clock Tuesday,” Roberts said. “I’m thinking Wednesday morning is about the earliest that the boil order could be lifted.”

The Pawhuska department routinely tests water samples several times a day, city officials said.

Following Friday’s discovery of the contamination, emergency notices were issued to the public outlining the potential dangers of the bacteria, Escherichia coli.

Residents were advised to boil local water before using it — or to use bottled water — until notified that the situation had been rectified. “Safe Water Use Boiling Advisory” notices posted on doors of local residences and businesses stated:

“DRINKING WATER WARNING: Boil your water before using or use bottle water. E coli bacteria were found in the Pawhuska Public water supply on Aug. 12, 2016. We are delivering a notice to each address right now so watch for a paper at your front door.”

Another locally-posted notice said: “Do Not Drink The Water Without Boiling It First. Bring to a full, rolling boil, let it boil for one minute, and let it cool before using or use bottled water. Use boiled or bottled water for drinking, preparing food, making baby formula, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, bathing infants, cleaning open wounds. Showering or bathing is okay.”

Several notices pointed out that treating the water with chlorine tablets, iodine tablets or liquid bleach will not kill the parasitic organisms posing the health dangers.

Bacterial contamination can occur when increased runoff enters the drinking water source, as well as due to an intrusion from nearby sources of contamination. It also can be caused by a water line break, officials said.

State officials said presence of the E. coli bacteria indicates possible contimination by human or animal wastes. Increased runoff from recent rains may have caused the problem by washing the bacteria into local drinking sources — i.e. Bluestem Lake and Bird creeks, they said.

Health experts have noted particular concern for the dangers posed to infants, young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Pawhuska City Manager Mike McCartney said the state agency alerted local officials about the situation at around 3:30 p.m. Friday. The city notified residents through social media and mass media. Public notices also were placed on residential and business doors.

Approximately 4,000 Pawhuska customers were affected by the boil order.

More information about the dangers of contamination can be found on the Safe Drinking Water Hotline of the federal Environmental Protection Agency at 1-800-426-4791.

Many E. coli strains do not cause disease, but virulent strains can cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, and neonatal meningitis. It can be characterized by severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea that typically turns bloody within 24 hours and (sometimes) fever. In rarer cases, virulent strains are also responsible for bowel necrosis (tissue death).

By noon Monday, at least two cases of illness that were possibly related to the contamination had been reported.

Testing was conducted at the municipal water treatment plant, as well as other locations in Pawhuska and Nelogany, officials said.

Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for protecting human health and for safeguarding the natural environment: air, water, and land. DEQ is governed by a 13-member board appointed by the governor. The state created the department in 1993.