Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Walkersville works to flush away E. coli-tainted water

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More than half a million gallons of liquid manure from Teabow Farms seeped into Walkersville’s water supply last month, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

‘‘We have no way of knowing exactly how much was discharged,” said Kim Lamphier, spokeswoman for the deparment, on Wednesday.

At most, though, she said 576,000 gallons spilled into Glade Creek and the town’s drinking water, leading to residents boiling their water and drinking bottled water for two weeks.

The state had not previously released the amount of manure that spilled.

On Tuesday, Bob Depaola, Walkersville’s public works director and water superintendent, demonstrated how the town is flushing the tainted water into Frederick County’s sewer system.

A heavy, iron pipe is dumping 600 gallons of water per minute from the wells into a grate in the floor, between large filtration tanks.

‘‘It used to look dark brown,” Depaola said.

The water will become drinking water after the county treats it.

But Walkersville residents may have to wait months before they sip their town’s own well water, officials said this week. Officials say the town’s wells are continuing to pull in water contaminated with high levels of harmful bacteria.

‘‘We’re seeing a trend down,” said Mike Marschner, Frederick County director of public utilities and solid waste, on Tuesday. ‘‘At some point in the future, we would expect these wells to have very low bacteria levels.”

The town’s water plant, located between the carnival grounds of Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company No. 11 and Walkersville Community Park, will remain inactive as long as the town uses water piped from a Frederick city treatment plant.

In a building connected to a 100,000-gallon holding tank called a clear well, next to the treatment plant, a series of six particle filters installed after a groundwater contamination episode in 1999 failed to hold the manure back, Depaola said.

The filters in the machines, which cost $400 each, were ruined.

Depaola supervises a team of four employees who spend one week per month each monitoring the water plant and the other three weeks maintaining the town’s public spaces.

When the plant’s turbidity meter on Jan. 24 jumped from .03 parts per million to 14 parts per million, and alerted the staff with an automatic pager signal, Depaola and the water crew settled in for two weeks of 14-hour days.

‘‘We had to work around the clock,” he said.

But ultimately, no amount of manpower could make up for the fact that the water plant lacked the machinery to treat such heavily contaminated water. ‘‘There was nothing we could do.”

Walkersville draws its water from three wells. The water then goes through a series of sand filters and water softeners in the water plant before being stored in the clear well.

Automated machinery pumps the water into the town’s three water towers, two of which hold 300,000 gallons, and one that holds 500,000 gallons.

According to the Frederick County Health Department Web site, water samples from 196 private wells near Teabow Farms, the source of the manure spill, and Glade Creek, which transmitted the spill to the town’s water supply, turned up 12 hits for E. coli. E. coli is a bacteria commonly found in animal intestines and feces that can cause illness in humans, particularly children and senior citizens.

Four people have reported falling ill because of the spill, according to Chad Gavitt, spokesman for the Frederick County Health Department, but those cases have not been directly linked to the spill.

Monday tests show the water contains about 57 E. coli organisms per every 100 mL of water. At its worst, the county’s raw groundwater has about 20 organisms per 100 mL, Marschner said.

‘‘Drinking water has to be less than one [organism per 100 mL],” Marschner said.

Still, the town’s water is considerably cleaner than it was on Jan. 29, in the days after a 6-inch pipeline from a manure lagoon to holding tanks broke twice on Teabow Farms. Officials found the water heavily contaminated, at 77,000 E. coli organisms per 100 mL.

‘‘I’m not sure many surface water plants could have dealt with what came in here,” said Depaola, who said he has worked in water treatment for about 30 years in both groundwater and surface water treatment plants.

A pipeline from a manure lagoon to holding tanks on the 1,000-cow dairy farm north of Walkersville has been blamed for the spill. The Maryland Department of the Environment began an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill last month.