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Source of E. coli in Rockford remains mystery

Manager describes perfect storm of failures

Photo by B. Altena

Photo by B. Altena

By Beth Altena

 

Multiple system failures occurred simultaneously to allow the City of Rockford’s water to be tainted with dangerous levels of E. coli bacteria last week, and City Manager Michael Young said the source of the contamination might never be identified.

Young said a chlorine pump that was only about six months old failed to work correctly and was found not functioning when city staff returned to work at the water treatment plant Tuesday, September 3. The machine served to measure and control the amounts of chlorine in the public water supply.

Additionally, an automated alarm system designed to ensure the pump was working as designed also failed, not signaling that the chlorine pump had malfunctioned. The result was a lower than normal amount of chlorine in the water, which allowed E. coli bacteria to rise to levels that were reported to be dangerous for human consumption.

“Normally we test [the water] on Saturday, we don’t test on Sunday, and test again on Monday,” Young said. “Because of the Labor Day holiday, we didn’t find out about the malfunction until Tuesday.” Young said subsequent testing of the water revealed the E. coli bacteria and the boil water advisory was issued to city residents.

The E. coli had to come from a warm blooded animal, but there has been no evidence of where an animal or animal excrement entered the water supply. Young said the water treatment plant was being “torn apart” in a due diligence effort to investigate the source with no result.

Other cities have had similar contaminations, and Young mentioned a nearby city where a faulty seal on a water tower allowed bird droppings into the water system. He said the contamination could not have occurred in the plant, while the water from Rockford’s underground source is treated unless an animal was able to get in the building.

Young said the multiple failures happening at once was “an unbelievable number of circumstances” and the city would certainly look at protocols to see if improvements can be made to make sure the incident is never repeated.

“This is a newer plant, eleven years old, and a piece of equipment that was less than a year old,” he described. He said the city is talking with the supplier of the chlorine pump as well as investigating the failures.

City staff and volunteers responded rigorously to the demands of the community while the boil advisory was on, working until 9 and 10 p.m. to hand out safe bottled water, said Volunteer Police Unit members Robin Behrend and Becky Matson. The two women were at the fire station at Rockford City Hall the afternoon of Thursday, September 5.

 

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