‘I would do it again” says CAO of water advisory

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Petrolia’s CAO says the town did everything it could to quickly inform residents about a problem with the water.

On Oct. 15, the town issued a precautionary boil water advisory after a water sample from a routine test after a water main break came back with traces of eColi.

The water main at the foot of the hill leading into the downtown broke early Thanksgiving morning. Town crews repaired it and then took the water samples required by Ministry of Environment guidelines. The first indication of eColi didn’t come back until Wednesday morning.

By Friday afternoon, the town had received word there were two clear water samples, enough to lift the advisory.

But there were questions from the public about what took so long to notify them about a potential problem when the water main break was Monday.

“Some people are saying as soon as water main broke we should have a boil advisory,” says CAO Manny Baron. But that would be unwieldy. “If that’s the case, Sarnia, for example, would have 70 boil water advisories a year.”

And he says it was not physically possible to get test results any sooner. “If there is something wrong, it takes 24 hours for that bug to appear,” he says.

Baron says as soon as the news came in, the town acted.  Baron says normally Lambton Public Health would issue the advisory. “I can’t speak for them why they didn’t make the call,” he says. Public health officials say they were still doing their risk assessment when the town wanted action.

“When they weren’t prepared to make the call – especially when it was eColi – our eyes went three times wider; you don’t mess around with this,” says Baron.

“The reason we chose to do that whether it is a little bit of eColi or a lot of eColi we weren’t going to wait…I have a three month old daughter not a chance she’s drinking water with eColi.

“I wasn’t comfortable with not saying anything.”

The town notified local schools and hospitals about the advisory and then issued a news release.

Lambton Public Health expanded the Boil Water Advisory to Enniskillen, Oil Springs and Dawn-Euphemia – who all buy their water from Petrolia. By the evening of Oct. 15, the bottled water supplies in local stores were exhausted as people chose to use it instead of boiling tap water.

And while the town issued a news release and local media extended the message, some people didn’t hear about the advisory. One person on The Independent’s Facebook page wrote Friday morning that he had only learned of the advisory then.

Some residents who had signed up for the My CNN community notification service received a call at home on Oct. 15.

In Dawn-Euphemia, volunteer firefighters fanned out across the municipality spreading the word. Baron says that was considered briefly on Friday but it was felt the word had got out.

“We exhausted everything in our power to get the word out,” says Baron. “My CNN and 211 is not perfect because you have to sign up, if you have an unlisted number, 211 cannot reach you, don’t sign up My CNN can’t reach you…We did do as much as we could.”

Lori Lucas of Lambton Public Health agrees. She says even though the town acted ahead of the public health, they were still assessing the risk. “We don’t want there to be any type of confusion. Whenever there is any water test which come in adverse…we look at lots of factors (before issuing) a water advisory,” she says.

“We have had adverse tests in the past where there was a sample error…all of those factors come into play.

“When ever there are results – Lambton Public Health always wants to work very closely with the water operator…in this scenario this was happening behind.”

Lucas says food inspectors also work with local restaurants when there is an advisory. But that may not have lessened the confusion. Sources tell The Independent one local coffee shop was told at the beginning of the advisory that their coffee pots, which heat water to 180 degrees, were fine to use without boiling water. Just hours before the advisory, the coffee shop received a call saying it must start boiling water.

Lucas wasn’t aware of the incident but says “some premises have their own protocols…especially franchises,” she says. Health inspectors were making calls explaining what was going on and “that messaging should be clear when the inspector is calling…Boil your water or using bottled water.”

Lucas says public health will be examining how the Boil Water Advisory unfolded in the next week to see if anything could be done better.

Petrolia has already met with its staff and with county staff on the same issue already. Baron says he’s proud of the way the town handled the situation.

“If it happened again tomorrow, I would do it again,” he says.

And Mayor John McCharles commended staff at Monday’s council meeting. “Senior staff and everyone involved and the water department did a great job,” he says. “We’re being well looked after; our people come first – that was certainly evident during this situation.”