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Despite notice, Manchester Water Works says bacteria level is safe

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 08. 2013 10:23PM

MANCHESTER — A notice about high-bacteria levels in Manchester water was out of date when Manchester Water Works first started mailing it two months ago, according to Water Works officials who say they continue to field questions about the federally mandated notice.

Local and state officials say federal rules have changed, and this may be one of the last times that the public is unnecessarily warned about a situation that poses no health threat to their drinking water.

But for the time being, Water Works said it was following federal regulations when it included the notice of coliform bacteria into water bills, starting in mid-August. By then, levels of coliform bacteria, an harmless bacteria, had returned to normal.

Yet the notice will be included in Water Works bills until early November, when the billing cycle ends, said David Paris, director of Water Works.

“All this notification stuff is confusing people more than anything else,” he said. “The (EPA) standard for public notification is screwy, it’s flawed.”

Paris said the problem occurred in July, when testing found coliform bacteria in 17 percent of samples taken that month. It was the first time ever that Manchester Water Works violated standards under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, Paris said.

The current standard says no more than 5 percent of samples should have coliform, although the EPA has slated the coliform standard for elimination in April 2016.

Paris said officials at Water Works continue to field questions about the notice. So does the New Hampshire Union Leader.

“They’re in violation, and they held this information back from us,” said Hall Street resident Robert Gagnon, who first read the notice Monday, when he opened his Water Works bill. He was also irked about a paragraph that urged him to post the notice or copy it and distribute it by hand or by mail.

Paris said he did what he could do to get the word out in July. Both the New Hampshire Union Leader and WMUR-TV ran brief articles, and the home page of the city website included the notice.

But he stressed that the bacteria is plentiful in the natural environment and not harmful.

“If it had been anything to jeopardize public health in any way, shape or form, we would have notified the community immediately,” he said. Coliform is used as an orange flag to alert water companies that the conditions are ripe for dangerous fecal bacteria, such as E. coli.

Federal rules require water departments to issue boil orders when E. coli is detected.

Paris said he could have opted to send out the notice to all customers in August, but he decided to include it in the 90-day billing cycle, saving about $6,000 in postage.

According to the EPA website, new rules will go into effect April 1, 2016. At that point, public water systems will have to alert the public to the presence of only harmful fecal bacteria.

Sarah Pillsbury, who oversees drinking water programs at the Department of Environmental Services, said the EPA allows states to adopt the rule ahead of schedule, and New Hampshire could have a new rule on the books in early 2015.

She stressed that the EPA adopted the initial coliform notification out of a belief in transparency. The new revisions allow water companies to concentrate on finding the source of the bacteria, rather than devoting resources on resampling and public notification.

Pillsbury said the wording of the Manchester Water Works notice, which she approved, is required under federal law.

“If we want to run the Safe Water Drinking Act out of New Hampshire instead of Washington, D.C.,” Pillsbury said, “we have to agree to do certain things.”

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