Poor Communication Main Target of Residents' Complaints

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By: Christopher Kazarian
Published: 06/15/10

The heat inside Falmouth Town Hall rose to uncomfortable levels on Friday afternoon as residents lashed out at town employees for how they handled the discovery of bacteria in the drinking water nearly two weeks ago and the haphazard release of that information to the public last week.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 residents filled the selectmen’s meeting room, with some lining the hallways, spending more than three hours criticizing town officials for their collective response to this public health emergency and failure to adequately protect the community.

At the conclusion of the meeting, selectmen tasked Falmouth Town Manager Robert L. Whritenour Jr. with conducting an investigation of the matter that at least one person, Barnstable County Health Director George R. Heufelder, warned could lead to fines being handed down by the state.

Several public officials, including Chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen Brent V.W. Putnam and Selectman David Braga issued apologies, but it was Water Superintendent William R. Chapman who had the most explaining to do as his department did not report the E. coli sample to the state until five days after it was discovered.

The day before, on Monday last week, Mr. Chapman had told Mr. Whritenour the water was fine after residents raised concerns about its musty smell and strange taste, and the town’s top leader relayed that information to selectmen and the public that night.

Mr. Chapman apologized to Mr. Whritenour, saying that the chief water operator, David A. Dietlin, was notified on Wednesday, June 9, by Groundwater Analytics of Buzzards Bay that water samples had tested positive for E. coli.

The next day, Mr. Chapman said, he was alerted to the situation although he thought the additional sampling being done was under the directive of the Department of Environmental Protection because water had tested positive for total coliform only, not E. coli.

It was under this presumption that he updated Mr. Whritenour prior to last Monday’s meeting and he apologized to him at Friday’s forum, admitting that “I should have been paying more attention to my staff. Mr. Whritenour, I owe you an apology. I certainly didn’t mean to mislead you.”

He also took blame for the delay in not getting the information out to residents earlier. “This is my fault,” he said. “I want to let everyone know that as water superintendent, public health and safety is my highest concern and I owe everyone an apology.”

But other public officials accepted their share of the blame, as well, including Mr. Putnam, who cut off Joseph A. Quintiliani of Old Barnstable Road, East Falmouth, who was in the midst of criticizing Mr. Whritenour for the situation.

“If he [Mr. Chapman] messed up, then Ray Jack messed up. And if Ray Jack messed up, then Mr. Whritenour messed up,” Mr. Quintiliani said. “The buck stops there.”

“The buck stops here,” Mr. Putnam interjected. “I will personally apologize to everyone in this room because that is ultimately what you folks hire us to do.”

“The buck doesn’t stop with you, the buck stops with the paid people [in town],” Mr. Quintiliani responded.

“Mr. Quintiliani, with all due respect, Mr. Whritenour works for us and we work for you,” Mr. Putnam said.

Some residents, like Marianne M. Angell of Shore Street, Falmouth, were puzzled that they were able to discern a problem with the public water supply before town officials. She said she detected a problem on June 6, a day before samples were taken that eventually tested positive for E. coli.

She contacted the water department the next day and told them something was wrong with the drinking water although no one listened.

“My concern and the reason I opened my big mouth is a lot of people in this town could have been really sick,” she said. “When our health department can’t react to an emergency situation and it takes a week for people to find out, then I think that is a real problem.”

Kenneth Ventura of Geggatt Road, Falmouth, was highly critical of the water department, suggesting they “were telling people lies” and misleading the public as the town’s water system should have notified water department employees bacteria levels were unhealthy through specific readings.

“Your residuals drop and your dosages dropped in Falmouth because of the turnover,” he said, referring to the fact that the town’s surface water source, Long Pond, had a naturally occurring event earlier this month in which water on the top shifted with the water on the bottom.

Michelle E. Hallenbrook of Fresh Pond Road, East Falmouth, was one of several in attendance to complain of sickness over the past two weeks. She added that her dog refused to drink tap water, another indication that there was something wrong in Falmouth.

At the same time, she credited Mr. Chapman for stepping up and taking responsibility for his mistakes, saying “that is the sign of a good leader... We are all human and we make errors.”

For her, the main issue is how the town will correct the issue “so we never have to do this again,” she said. “We don’t need to spend any more time trying to figure out whose fault it is.”

To that end, Department of Public Works Superintendent Raymond A. Jack presented one solution that has been proposed for nearly two decades—install a filter at Long Pond as a way to combat potential contaminants.

In the early 1990s, he said, the town was granted a waiver from the state so it would not have to conform to federal mandates. As a result, it built a disinfectant treatment center at Long Pond that targets a narrow range of pathogenic bacteria, he said.

The treatment, he said, happens at the source before the water travels to homes throughout Falmouth, which has roughly 400 miles of water mains. And much of that infrastructure is aging; some of it is close to 100 years old.

What happened in Falmouth, he said, is that tests taken on June 7 came back positive for both total coliform, over the five percent threshold permitted by the state, as well as E. coli. Those results were relayed to Mr. Dietlin on June 9.

Mr. Jack said the DEP, along with the public, should have been notified within 24 hours of obtaining those results, but because of miscommunication in the water department and a misinterpretation of laws, that did not happen.

The DEP did not learn that Falmouth’s water tested positive for E. coli until last Monday, June 14. After meeting with Mr. Chapman the next morning, state officials forced the town to issue a boil water order later that day.

He ensured the public that “everything that can be done is being done,” adding that “members of the water department are working very hard and very diligently to take corrective action.” Those steps include additional sampling at points throughout the town’s distribution system as well as increased flushing and adding chlorine to treat the water.

Since June 9, no E. coli has been found, but traces of total coliform have been detected.

Falmouth now must produce two days of clean samples, meaning that not even traces of total coliform can be present. “At this time of year, that is extremely difficult to do even under normal circumstances,” Mr. Jack said.

Until that time, the boil water order is in place as a precautionary measure, he said.

As to how the town’s drinking water became a risk to public health, Mr. Chapman said it “was a perfect storm of events” that included higher than normal water levels, pond turnover, and a significant rain the Saturday prior to the June 7 samples being taken.

At the same time, he said, Long Pond continuously tests positive for total coliform and in the past has come close to meeting a threshold in which five percent of all samples taken have that bacteria in them.

He joked that former chief water plant operator Manuel M. Valadao Jr., who retired in December “could hold his breath longer than any guy I know. Why? Because he held his breath from May to September,” in reference to the months when total coliform tests in Falmouth are typically the highest.

Mr. Chapman said it is difficult to ensure treatment methods are successful to the extremities of the town’s water system “especially when the infrastructure is 100 years old.”

Selectman Ahmed A. Mustafa asked how serious the situation is, to which Mr. Heufelder said that based upon the fact that E. coli has not been found in repeat samples, the danger is diminished. He said total coliform, which has shown up in subsequent samples after June 9, “does not always mean the presence of human pathogens although sometimes they do. The odds are smaller, but the risks are there.”

But for many the complaint was not that the drinking water tested positive for bacteria, it was both the delay and manner in which that information was relayed to the public.

Mr. Braga was upset that the day prior to the boil water order, Mr. Whritenour told his board and the public that the water was fine.

Mr. Putnam questioned why the school system can communicate efficiently with parents that there will be no school after a snowstorm and wondered why the town did not take advantage of that resource.

Mr. Whritenour said the school’s system is not part of the town’s Local Emergency Planning Committee’s emergency response protocols, noting that local officials had hopes that the Barnstable County Sheriff’s reverse 911 system would be the better option. That turned out not to be the case as some residents were not notified until Wednesday morning.

Mr. Putnam also questioned why it took Mr. Chapman three hours to craft a boil water order notice to the public. Mr. Braga pointed out that the DEP has a template that provides the language for such notifications.

Between 6 and 11 PM last Tuesday night, Mr. Chapman was relaying information about the boil water order notice to various town departments, first notifying Mr. Whritenour before reaching out to the police, fire, and board of health. Mr. Putnam wondered why these phone calls had to be made by Mr. Chapman and asked if the local emergency response plan identifies others who could have done this work.

Mr. Whritenour said the immediate work had to be done by Mr. Chapman, but on Wednesday the public affairs role shifted to him as the water department focused on technical assistance and solving the water quality issues.

Residents were upset that the information took so long to reach the public. Edward J. Sullivan of Sharon Ann Lane, East Falmouth, pointed out that, while at dinner at Friendly’s a week earlier, he was told by the wait staff that “the water was contaminated and they were boiling water. How can Friendly’s be aware of a problem like this and no one in town knows?”

Communication, or the lack thereof, was the biggest criticism audience members had of public officials as many residents said they learned of the boil water order by word of mouth.

“This should have been treated like an emergency,” Carla Bouvier of Quaker Road, North Falmouth, said. “To find out a week later is inexcusable and there is no reason for that. The people have a right to be angry.”

Mr. Heufelder warned that the town could be facing a fine from the DEP after waiting five days to notify the state agency.
He urged town officials to be proactive and work toward “writing a play book for this kind of scenario” as a way to mitigate these potential fines. Such a manual, he said, could be used for other communities throughout the state that may one day deal with a similar health emergency.

After three hours of what was at times passionate discussion, selectmen agreed unanimously that Mr. Whritenour should conduct an investigation into exactly happened, specifically what public employees knew, when they knew about it, and what they did about it. The report is scheduled to be completed by Monday, July 12.

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