The calls were coming fast and furious into the unassuming building on Main Street in West Warwick that is headquarters for the Kent County Water Authority. Everyone wanted the same information: Is my water safe to drink?
Employees would ask for their address, give them a “yay” or “nay,” hang up and the phone would ring again. Repeat.
On Sunday, the KCWA sent out an alert that most of its customers – including those in East Greenwich, Cowesett and Potowomut – should boil their tap water before using it to drink, cook, or brush teeth with after tests detected the E. coli bacteria in one of the six water holding tanks. Since then, it's been all phones, all the time at KCWA.
“The purpose to inform the customers, to answer their questions to the best of our ability,” said KCWA General Manager Tim Brown.
According to Brown, KCWA tests its water supply daily Monday through Friday, taking between 100 and 120 samples a week. Alternatively, the tanks are tested once a month. The first hint of trouble came Wednesday, Sept. 18, from a test of the tank just off Wakefield Street in West Warwick.
The sample tested positive for growth. That in itself is not extraordinary, Brown said. KCWA gets that result occasionally. When that happens, more testing is required.
“On the 18th, it was indicated there was something on the media … growth. We needed to take it through its steps, which is continued incubation another 48 hours for a total of 72 hours,” Brown said. “Under EPA’s protocol, we were notified on Friday that it was ‘total coliform.’”
Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply. Its presence alone does not prompt a boil-water advisory, he said.
Rather, it means more samples need to be taken, to confirm that the result was not a false positive.
“We needed to repeat the process. We went back to the tank and took another sample on Sept. 20” – Friday. They also took two samples downstream of the tank. Those samples tested clean, said Brown. The tank sample, however, showed something was growing on the media but there were no specifics yet.
More incubation time was needed.
“On Sunday morning, all of a sudden, [the lab] realized that it’s E. coli. We were notified at 9:45, quarter of 10 that day that we had a problem,” Brown said. “And, of course, this was Sunday.”
He continued, “My director and I came in, shut the tank down, and started to contact the Department of Health. At 11, 11:30, we finally make contact.”
KCWA needed to draft an alert notice which had to be approved by the R.I. Dept. of Health. That got done by around 2:30 Sunday afternoon.
“We started sending faxes out to the press,” Brown said. (Outlets like Patch, which rely on phone and email alerts, were not notified. Brown said KCWA would “work on that” post emergency.)
The problem tank remains offline and, Brown said, will not be tested during this period. It will be dealt with after the crisis has abated.
But the rest of the system continues to be tested. New samples, from 12 regular testing spots in the system, were taken Sunday and they have all come back clean. Since then, those sites, plus the two sites downstream from the Wakefield tank, have been sampled again.
“It is 24 hours from the time the lab gets the samples and sets them up and puts them in the incubator,” said Brown. “If these samples come back clean, “then we do it again.”
He said the health department requires a minimum of three clean tests before they will allow KCWA to lift the boil-water advisory, but they could ask for more.
“If they give us the high sign to remove the advisory to boil the water on Wednesday, we will do that, but we don’t know what time that would be," Brown said.
In the meantime, there are phones to answer.Here are some R.I. Health Dept. guidelines for dealing with contaminated water.