October 24, 2014
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Water scare may result in better alerts

It looks like no one will ever know the source of E. Coli detected in a water tank that prompted a “boil water” alert to almost 29,000 customers of the Kent County Water Authority on Sept. 22.

But while the source of the bacteria remains a mystery, the experience may result in a far more effective means of alerting water customers to conditions affecting their service. And, in fact, this same system run by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), could become the means of notifying people of other situations directly affecting them.

Timothy Brown, director of the Kent County Water Authority, said Tuesday that the 2-million-gallon tank is being drained and taken offline.

“It’s no longer needed in the system and will eventually be taken down,” he said.

The removal of the tank has nothing to do with two tests showing the presence of E. Coli.

Brown said this is not the first tank to be removed and he doubts it will be the last. The tank was used to maintain system pressure. Water would get pumped into the tank so that gravity ensured a supply under pressure to the lines below it. That system is being replaced with pumping stations to keep up with demand and maintain pressure.

The fact the tank was not actively used could be an explanation for the E. Coli. Accoding to Brown, he thinks water stagnation and low chlorine residuals in the tank could have allowed the growth of the bacteria, but “we’ll never know for sure.” Tests following the alert were negative.

“We never found it again. The tank was all fine,” he said.

Although the authority followed protocols after detecting E. Coli, it was criticized for not immediately notifying customers to boil water. Notices were issued to the news media and authorities but there was no method to instantly contact consumers directly. Confusing matters, Kent County Water has customers in several municipalities, including sections of Warwick. Customers in Apponaug, Natick, Cowesett and Potowomut were affected while the rest of the city, serviced by the Warwick Water Division, was not subject to the alert. Schools and Kent Hospital are in the area serviced by Kent Water and used bottled water during the period of the alert.

At the time of the alert, Brown said the authority explored contracting with a company that had a system of immediate notification but that has since been abandoned, as Kent and five other water utilities are working with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency to develop a system.

“We’re looking at using all the technology that EMA has,” said Brown.

RIEMA Director Jamia R. McDonald said the agency has had several meetings with the water authority and what is being developed could serve as a model for the state’s other five water utilities.

McDonald pointed out that the utility faces the challenge of notifying customers but also other consumers, such as restaurant patrons or hotel guests who don’t live in the area.

To do that, they are looking at importing the authority’s database of customers as well as a mapping of locations. With geographic locations in the system, she said RIEMA would have the capability of “pinging” cells phones within designated areas, regardless of the phones’ area code.

McDonald said RIEMA is also working with State Police, Rhode Island Department of Transportation and RIPTA on means of notification. Also being explored is social media, which she noted played a role in Superstorm Sandy. While areas lost power, people still had access to their cell phones and word got out that way.

Also at the table are the Health Department and 211, the information call service operated by United Way.

Brown expects the system will be more comprehensive than what the authority had been considering.

“In the long run it will save us a considerable amount of money,” he said.

McDonald said the governor asked for ways to improve communications following recent storms.

“We’re seizing this moment to see if we can do it better,” she said.

The boil water alert was lifted by the Department of Health on Sept. 25 after tests found the water clear of bacteria. There were no reports of illnesses related to the water.


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