MONROE – Union County Public Works customers woke up to the news of a boil water advisory March 12 after the presence of E. coli was found in a routine water sampling.
Junior Honeycutt, who serves as the county’s public works water superintendent, said the sample that showed the presence of E. coli was collected March 10 near the intersection of U.S. 74 and Gray Fox Road in Indian Trail. Public works was notified March 11.
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Both Honeycutt and Public Works Administrator Hyong Yi said public works routinely collects water samples daily, which adds up to more than 120 samples a month. Honeycutt said about 100 samples had already come in by the time of the advisory, and all passed the test except for the one March 10.
After the test showed the presence of E. coli, Honeycutt said public works immediately collected a second sample and tested additional samples in the general area, as well as routine testing at other points in the countywide system.
“We believe this is a site-specific E. Coli issue from where the water sample was taken from,” Honeycutt said. “There’s no reason to believe there was any mass contamination of the county’s water system. The county samples over 120 coliform samples every month. We’re already close to 100 this month and all have been good except for this one. We’ll continue to sample to make sure that it was site-specific.”
Honeycutt also said the presence of E. coli could have come from “a number of causes.”
Some Union County residents expressed concerns in the two-day delay to get the advisory. Honeycutt said it takes 24 hours for the water sample to incubate before they can receive results from the lab.
“Although the sample had been taken Monday, it was literally Tuesday at 5:00 before we found out that the sample had failed, so we continued to pull samples into the late hours of the evening on Tuesday,” Honeycutt said. “Those results to confirm the E. Coli was positive did not come back until late last night, so we started working on this issue last night at about 10.”
Residents in Monroe and the towns of Marshville and Wingate were not affected by the advisory. Additionally, Yi said residents whose water came from Anson County would not be affected.
Yi stressed that public works aimed to communicate any further results with customers as soon as the information became available.
Traci Colley, the county’s environmental health director, said her team worked with the state division to manage this issue for facilities that use water from Union County public works. These facilities, which include childcare services and restaurants, were instructed to close.
Union County Public Schools broke the news of the advisory March 12 and closed schools before the county announced anything. Union County Public Communications Manager Liz Cooper said the public works team was immediately in contact with the state’s department of environmental quality, along with other state agencies. It was not until the early hours of Thursday morning that they received public health guidance from the state.
“At that point, when we realized the impact it would have to the entire customer base for Union County Public Works, we made plans immediately to open our emergency operations center this morning, pulled together stakeholders from several different community partners and started working on our communications plans,” Cooper said. “We know that the school district has a different deadline for notifying families that the school district will be closed and we completely understand and were in communication with the school district’s communications office early this morning.”
On March 12, Mecklenburg County reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus. As concerns loomed, Union County’s public health medical director, Stephen Keener, said E. coli and coronavirus are two different types of illnesses.
He said coronavirus causes respiratory systems, while E. coli causes gastrointestinal symptoms. However, water contaminated by E. coli would be harmful when trying to take precautions around coronavirus.
“The problem with gastrointestinal bacteria is that the contamination can come from the food or water that we drink or it can come from food and water that has been contaminated by our hands, so similar to coronavirus, it’s important to keep our hands clean,” Keener said. “But when we talk about washing our hands with contaminated water, that’s not a good thing. So, while we say it’s OK to shower with the water currently, when you’re washing your hands, you want to get them completely clean, so that’s why it’s important to use either boil water that has been cooled or bottled water to wash your hands with and follow up with hand sanitizer.”
The boil water advisory was lifted March 13 and the county has yet to report any cases of coronavirus or E. coli.
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