Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sterling's response to water emergency not sterling

On Tuesday, routine testing of Sterling's water supply found traces of e.Coli bacteria. When the results were returned on Wednesday, the town issued a boil water order for all residents and businesses that use the town water supply. We are still required to boil our water until at least Tuesday. Unfortunately, word got out in dribs and drabs, and many (if not most) residents didn't get the word until sometime on Thursday, long after the order went out.

The lack of timely information and the spread of misinformation suggests that the town's leaders were not prepared to communicate this sort of emergency to townspeople, and some citizens have begun to wonder if the lack of information has compromised the safety of their families.

According to the date stamp on the official boil water notice posted to, the PDF file was created at 6:48 pm on Wednesday, July 21. We found out about it thanks to a Facebook post from one of our neighbors sometime after 9:30 pm. It looks like we were some of the lucky ones, although our children had drinks, brushed their teeth, and washed up after the boil water order was issued.

Information began to circulate on Thursday. The Telegram and Gazette ran a short item Thursday morning. Incredibly, the item did not give out a local phone number or Web site for residents to get further information. Instead, the phone number it included where people could call to get information was an 800 number for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

By Thursday morning, electronic tote boards on Main Street and Worcester Road had been erected to tell motorists about the order. Those signs did include a local phone number. Other media also helped get the word out, as local television stations had picked up the story by midday and were including the information in their news reports.

Finally, late Tuesday afternoon -- nearly a full 24 hours after the boil water order went into effect -- we received the reverse-911 call informing us of the water emergency.

Think about that for a minute. It took an entire day to get the phones hooked up and get a broadcast message to the town. 235 years ago, the people of Lexington found out the British were coming in a quarter of the time it took the people of Sterling to find out their water wasn't safe to drink. Perhaps we should hire out an equestrian squad and have them gallop through the countryside in the tradition of Paul Revere. Bet it wouldn't have taken 24 hours to get the word out...

Not that the communication has been much better since then. After updating the Web site on Thursday evening, the town did not post another update until yesterday afternoon. There has not been an update for 27 hours (as of this writing) and it does not appear that there will be any more information for almost 24 hours to come:
As of Saturday, July 24th at 3PM, the boil water order continues to be in effect for all users of the Sterling Water Department System. Preliminary results show no E-coli but some coliform in the system. The water department has been disinfecting the entire water system and will take another round of sampling on Monday, July 26th per DEP directive. Please be informed that it takes 24 hours to receive results of the samples collected.
It would be nice to get a daily fact, I think it is necessary, even if the update is little more than a message stating that nothing has changed. Beyond that, the notice needs to be clear and precise. Reading that closely, it's clear that the earliest the boil water order can be rescinded is Tuesday, July 26 (24 hours after the next round of testing on the 25th). Well, just say it.

Because of the lack of information, people are starting to blame the town for whatever is going wrong with their pets, children, etc. On Friday, I heard a group of parents talking about kids they knew who had been sick that week and they were sure it was the water. I've talked to people who have a sick dog and they figure that is because of the water. Another friend of ours has a 3-year-old with a stomach bug, and she thinks it's because she didn't get the notice until Thursday night and her family was drinking tap water all day.

Maybe they are right. I'm skeptical that every stomach bug and distempered pet is the result of water contamination. Frankly, I'm skeptical that any of it is from the water. But people don't believe they had the information they needed -- and deserved -- to keep their families safe.

The feeling of distrust is a burden that the town departments and leaders will deal with for some time to come.
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