Tighter rules mean changes for well owners

Several wells in Milton-Freewater have been flagged for E. coli contamination.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- Stir in a new government regulation to a decades-old situation and you get a problem, according to Oregon public health officials.

Last week, the state agency that monitors public drinking water said some private wells surrounding the Milton-Freewater area are contaminated with bacteria found in fecal matter, E. coli.

The wells in question serve businesses and an elementary school. Those named are all taking steps to resolve the situation and the water they use is safe for consumption, officials added.

Affected are Ferndale Elementary School on Old Milton Highway, Pam's Morning Madness and the M-F Drive-In on Highway 11. The nearby Wayside Market also was flagged but has since installed a disinfection system, according to Bill Goss, regional engineer for Oregon state's Drinking Water Program.

All involved already use water treated through ultraviolet filter or chlorination, in compliance with previous government regulations. As well, all are separate from the city's water supply, which does not show any contamination, he added.

However, a new Environmental Protection Agency rule, which went into effect in December, is designed to reveal groundwater sources contaminated with fecal matter and make sure the water is adequately treated.

When a problem surfaces at the untreated end of a water source, the new regulation calls for additional steps to be taken -- even if the treated water was previously considered safe, he said, adding that he knows the issue seems muddy. "The EPA regulation that governs all these actions is very complicated."

The challenge flows from the aquifer that sits north of the city. The shallow underground layer of water is prone to contamination and was first raised as an issue in 1988 when studies highlighted the situation.

In 1999, a study by Anderson-Perry and Associates covered 1,300 acres of the area in question, starting at the north end of the city limits and extending to just north of Ferndale Road, over to the eastern limits of the Walla Walla River and along the west side of the Old Milton Highway.

Population in that area was then estimated at 1,300, using an average of 105 gallons of water per person per day. The study pointed out that a 1996 report by Oregon State University said as many as 77 percent of wells sampled in the area tested positive for coliform bacteria and as many as 20 percent tested positive for E. coli.

Possible fixes called for additional taxation, which property owners did not want and Umatilla County officials didn't press, and "nothing else happened," Goss said.

Although a "fair amount" of public education about well water safety was done in the area in the 1990s, there is no way to measure the effect of those efforts, the engineer said. "Most of those are private wells and we might not hear about people on private wells. Typically if they get sick, they may not realize it's their water. Even if they go to the doctor, they may not report that to anyone."

The places monitored by his office, on the other hand, are required to improve existing water treatment methods or find a new water source once a problem is identified.

For the Milton-Freewater Public School District, that comes with a $25,000 price tag. Ferndale Elementary School has treated its well water with ultraviolet filtering and the water has consistently tested absent for bacteria, said Marilyn McBride, district superintendent. The new EPA rule has forced the district to drill a new well into the basalt aquifer.

The money to do so is coming in from a now-expired bond for the school in the form of back taxes, she said today. "So that is coming in from Ferndale property owners and we are not having to dip into the district's general fund. We would have liked to use those dollars elsewhere but at least it's dollars from Ferndale."

Plans call for the new well to be finished in time for the Aug. 25 start of the school year. In the meantime, the school continues to have access to the old well, McBride noted. "And it is still treated water and totally safe ... the same water everyone drank for years and years."

Her solution is smaller but no less a hassle, said Pam Kelly, owner of Pam's Morning Madness. The highway drive-through coffee shop serves a large number of regular customers, whom she views as friends. "Their health is important to me," Kelly said this morning.

While she has been in compliance with state law for the five years she has been open, the new EPA regulation means she will now haul in bottled water for the foreseeable future, the barista added.

His office is in charge of making sure people are not getting sick from publicly regulated wells, but of greater concern are those outside his reach, Goss said.

Homeowners need to be attentive to their private wells, testing those for bacteria and nitrates at least once a year, he cautioned.

Wells can become contaminated by surface water or shallow groundwater, especially during periods of high run-off due to rainfall, snow melt or stream flooding, said Genni Lehnert, administrator for Umatilla County Public Health. "The best way to determine if the well has been contaminated is to have a water sample tested by a drinking water laboratory."

If well water tests positive for contamination, property owners should boil their drinking water or use an alternate source such as bottled water, she added.

Water should be boiled for one minute after it reaches a rolling boil. Boiled or bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and food preparation. Boiling kills bacteria and other organisms in the water.

The water is safe for hand washing and bathing, but people should not swallow the water.

Washing dishes can be safely done by using hot water (dishwasher) or placing one capful of bleach in the rinse water.

If you experience symptoms such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, or headaches and they persist, seek medical advice. Infants, young children, some elderly and people with severely compromised immune systems may be at an increased risk for medical complications.

If a well has been contaminated by a specific flooding event or surface run-off, the well should be disinfected with bleach and flushed. If this temporary disinfection procedure does not eliminate the bacteria, continuous treatment may be required. Common treatment units that can be installed for your home to continuously treat bacteria include ultraviolet units and chlorination.

For more information, call Oregon State Drinking Water at 541-276-8006 or Umatilla County Public Health at 541-278-5432.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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