03 October 2013

Fixing Problems At Water Plant Can't Wait

Story first appeared in Traverse City Record Eagle.

Traverse City officials who worry about the region’s reputation as a vacation destination when e-coli bacteria counts get too high on area beaches should shudder at the thought of what a few cases of giardiasis might do.

That could have been the case at least twice this year during prime tourism season and, it turns out, “many times” in the past decade.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials issued a Significant Deficiency Violation Notice for incidents on July 5 and July 31, when the city failed to use enough coagulant to filter out a pathogen that can cause diarrhea from the city’s drinking water.

The more serious incident occurred July 5 — just as the National Cherry Festival was getting into full swing — because of a pump failure at the city’s water treatment plant.

City commissioners and officials from Elmwood, Garfield, and Peninsula townships, which buy water from the city, didn’t learn of the problem until Monday.

“Shouldn’t that have been done two months ago?” asked Commissioner Jim Carruthers.

The short answer, of course, is yes. If the city’s reputation suffered a black eye when the brand-new splash pad at Clinch Park spewed untreated sewage on some children, imagine what a few cases of “travelers diarrhea” (so named because of its prevalence in nations with less developed water systems) might have done.

This is the kind of thing that must be dealt with swiftly and publicly, to ensure it’s being fixed and to guarantee the public isn’t being kept in the dark.

City workers didn’t consider the incident a public health threat because the pathogen is usually not present in the area of East Bay where the city draws its water. But public officials can’t take that kind of gamble. 

DEQ officials said the incidents should have been immediately reported and they would have ordered an increase in chlorine, a partial flush of the system and a public notice.  This public notice would also have been read by those with a Golf Course Irrigation Systems.

The superintendent of the water treatment plant said he thought the level of a chemical that helps filter out the pathogen was a DEQ recommendation, not a required minimum. Incredibly, city records show the amount of coagulant has been below that level many times over the last decade.

That’s not acceptable. This is the major source of drinking water for thousands of people and untold numbers of visitors, and its purity must protected at all costs.

Obviously, the city needs to do some major work at the water plant — to better train personnel and upgrade or replace outdated equipment.

This can’t wait. Few public health issues are as crucial as pure potable water. The region’s health literally depends on it.

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