All-Clear on Water; Businesses Upset
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The Pinehurst/Seven Lakes water has been cleared to drink, but the notification process used during the weekend's water-boil advisory remains under the microscope.
County officials announced about 12:15 a.m. Sunday that the system's water-boil advisory, in effect since Friday evening, had been lifted.
The Moore County Public Utilities Office had issued a mandatory water-boil advisory for the 20,000 customers of the two systems late Friday after fecal coliform bacteria were detected and confirmed during a routine testing of the water supply. Fifteen such tests are conducted each month.
The county Health Department ordered that all restaurants in the affected areas close and revoked their operating permits until the advisory was lifted. Health-care facilities, including FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital and nursing homes, had to use backup water systems.
Public Utilities workers retested the contaminated site as well as downstream and upstream from the area Saturday and had the results analyzed at a certified lab in Southern Pines. All 12 samples came back negative for fecal coliform.
Fecal coliform bacteria are found in the soil and intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals.
"Once those positive tests came back, the system was in compliance and the water was safe to drink," said county Utilities Director Marcus Jones.
He said the overwhelming theory at this point is that the initial contamination was confined to the one test site, maybe even to the one testing access point.
"It looks like it came from one point outside the (site)," said J.D. Monroe with the Public Water Supply Division of the N.C. Division of Environmental and Natural Resources. "We're doing more special sampling just to make sure the place is still clean."
Though the exact cause will not be confirmed until a thorough investigation is complete, Jones said that customers should rest easy in the news that the contamination appears to have been isolated.
"If you didn't have a Moore County utilities staff member come to your door, your risk probably wasn't that elevated," he said, adding that officials are still chlorinating the entire water supply as a preventive measure.
Jones told the Moore County Board of Commissioners at its Monday meeting that there is no reason to suppose a connection to the similar water-boil advisory issued earlier Friday for Cary.
"The situation in Cary was an unprecedented coincidence, but it helped to get media attention," he said.
Jones also said there is no reason to suspect foul play.
The county increased the chlorine levels so aggressively to counteract any contamination of the entire system. Jones said it would have been clear if someone had accessed the system illegally.
This is the first such case of contamination in Moore County, Jones and Monroe said. And the area appears to have emerged relatively unscathed.
Gretchen Kelly, director of public relations for FirsthHealth Moore Regional Hospital, said that no patients have been admitted in relation to fecal coliform infection.
Jones said he had heard that one resident's out-of-town visitors had become sick after visiting, but he does not know if that is related to the water.
Concerns About Notice
The county commissioners had nothing but praise for the handling of the situation.
"It was a learning experience we all go through," Commissio-ner Tim Lea said.
Business owners were less pleased.
The 100 members of the Pinehurst Business Guild have voiced concerns about the level of notification from the county, said business guild President Janeen Driscoll, who is also communications manager for Pinehurst Resort.
"There's lots of concern with how the message got across," she said. "Some of the members heard right away, others not until late Sunday."
Sue Elliott, owner of the Pinehurst Sundry and Soda, did not hear of the advisory until early Sunday.
"I don't know that anyone was well informed," she said, adding that she was not open for business late Friday when the immediate notification went out.
Alan Riley, owner of Dugan's Pub, received several calls from other business owners Friday night before hearing from the county about 10 p.m.
"Next time around, I'd like to know the process," he said.
Riley said that many questions floated around the business sector as to the degree that they could operate.
"What got closed down? What could be served?" he said. "They could've done much more to let us know."
Riley estimates that he lost $10,000 by closing.
County Health Department Director Robert Wittman said his office communicated with every business owner they could get in touch with late Friday and then again late Saturday once the advisory was rescinded.
"The media were very helpful," he added. "How else were we going to get the word out?"
Jones said the main lessons to be learned from the incident are in the vein of communications.
He told the commissioners that the department is looking at available technologies to make the emergency contact system, which operated through Sunday, more efficient.
The county-staffed hotlines saw more than 1,000 callers.
He and Monroe both said they are looking at a reverse 911 system, which can distribute pre-recorded messages to a batch of phone numbers.
But even that sort of system would have taken a while to circulate to every customer of such a large system, Jones pointed out.
"That technology has a price, but it'd be good to have in the future," he said.
Another improvement might be to set up fixed access points to the water supply so that officers don't have to enter the system anew with each monthly testing.
"But that's expensive," Jones said, adding that if another such crisis were to come along soon, that sort of technology would appear more worthwhile.
The bottom line in this case, Jones said, is that the contamination was confined and the county did what it could.
"We could've mobilized the entire county government and gone door to door, but it wasn't appropriate for the level of risk," he said.
Pinehurst Village Manager Andy Wilkison said he has not heard any complaints regarding the handling of the situation.
Jones spoke to the Village Council at its Tuesday meeting.
"I think Moore County did a good job," Wilkison said. "They did the best they could."
While the county continues to investigate how to prevent future contaminations, residents should feel confident about the drinking water, Jones said.
"The water is safe and there shouldn't be any concerns," he said.
Senior Writer Florence Gilkeson contributed to this report.
Ryan C. Tuck can be reached at 693-2507 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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