Why did it take three days to inform Portlanders about the water?

Why did it take three days to inform Portlanders about the water?

Why did it take three days for the city of Portland to inform the public about E. coli found in drinking water? 

I asked Commissioner Nick Fish that Friday morning. He said the city's not allowed to notify the public until other confirmation samples are taken and reviewed by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

"We cannot issue a notice until the OHA, our regulator, tells us to," said Fish.

But later on Friday, Kari Salis, OHA's drinking water services regional manager, told me, "That isn’t really true - that the city can’t notify unless OHA says so. The city can choose to go on a boil notice before talking with us."

Still, both agree that issuing a preliminary notice of a single routine sample testing positive for fecal bacteria is a bad idea, given the possibility of false positives. (False positives can come with errors in the testing process, a tester not washing his/her hands, an animal defecating on the faucet that was tested, etc). And in this situation, the way the testing and results played out, officials say no mandatory public notification was required.

Here's why.

Salis said a boil water notice is only required to be issued when both a routine sample and a confirmation sample from the same location (reservoir, faucet, etc.) reveal the presence of fecal bacteria. And that never happened, according to the Portland Water Bureau and the Oregon Health Authority.

Here's the timeline I've gathered from talking with both agencies:

Tuesday: 

-- Routine samples are taken by the Portland Water Bureau. Samples are submitted. Testing takes 18 hours to process, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Wednesday: 

-- In the morning, one of the routine samples taken Tuesday from Reservoir 1 at Mt. Tabor tests positive for E. coli.

-- Throughout the rest of the day, the Water Bureau takes re-samples from Reservoir 1 upstream, downstream, and at the outlet where the positive test was taken Tuesday. It also takes surveillance samples from areas nearby. A total of 23 samples are collected for special testing.

Thursday:

-- All the special testing re-samples taken from Reservoir 1 at Mt. Tabor test negative for E. coli. BUT one of the routine samples from Wednesday taken at SE 2nd and Salmon tests positive for E. coli

Friday:

-- All special testing samples from Thursday at SE 2nd and Salmon test negative for E. coli. BUT on the routine sample route, one of the samples from Thursday taken at Reservoir 5 at Mt. Tabor tests positive for E. coli.

So basically, three positive tests for fecal bacteria at three different locations in Portland on three separate days but no secondary confirmation test. And again, a boil water notice is only required by the Oregon Health Authority when both a routine sample and a confirmation sample from the same location test positive for fecal bacteria. That never happened.

The Portland Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff says this is an unusual situation with OHA, which directed Portland to issue a boil water notice anyway.

Shaff tells me Portland has seen one other E. coli event in 2014, in April. It also had a series of coliform events in October 2013 in Southwest Portland.

Kalis with OHA says Portland tests the outlets of the open reservoirs four times a week and it hasn't been very common they’ve had E. coli at all. Why that is, she says, is hard to say. 

She explained how Portland's water is treated with chlorine and ammonia, but it's not considered adequate by Oregon Health Authority standards on treatment requirements. 

She said Portland treats its water fully at Bull Run Reservoir with the combination of chlorine and ammonia, but "once it hits the open reservoirs, there’s possibility of re-contamination."

She acknowledges that the City of Portland treats it water a second time at the reservoirs, but says the chlorine needs a certain amount of contact time and "there's no way they can get that with the open reservoirs. The disinfection is inadequate to inactivate organisms, turn them non-infectious and stop them from reproducing in the gut."

Still, she says the public notification in this case was done as fast as anyone could have done it because in her view, "The first two weren’t considered confirmed and were at two different locations. We think the city acted exactly as they should have. They told us results as soon as they could. The public was informed as soon as possible."