BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A failure in the city’s drinking water treatment system that occurred during the National Cherry Festival went unreported for almost a month.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials issued the city a Significant Deficiency Violation Notice for incidents on July 5 and July 31, when the city failed to use enough coagulant to filter out a pathogen that can cause diarrhea. The more serious incident occurred on July 5 because of a pump failure.
A DEQ official said the incidents should have been immediately reported. The failure was not considered a threat to public health because the pathogen generally is not present in the area of East Bay, from which the city draws its water.
City commissioners learned of the problem on Monday, as did officials from Elmwood, Garfield, and Peninsula townships who buy water from the city.
“I’m a little surprised it took this long to surface,” said Commissioner Jim Carruthers. “They are going to notify the public now. Shouldn’t that have been done two months ago?”
Had city officials notified the DEQ in a timely manner, the agency would have ordered an increase in chlorine level and a partial flush of the system, said Brian Thurston, district engineer for the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance in the DEQ’s Cadillac office.
DEQ officials would have issued a public notice at that time.
On July 5 city workers discovered that a pump that delivers alum to the city’s water treatment facility had failed. Alum works to coagulate microscopic giardia lamblia cysts into a mass that can be filtered out of the water.
If ingested, the cysts latch onto the small intestines and cause giardiasis, also known as “travelers diarrhea,” because of its prevalence in nations with less developed water treatment systems, according to the Mayo Clinic’s web site.
Symptoms generally take seven days to develop after exposure.
Art Krueger, superintendent of the water treatment plant, said at the time he didn’t believe the problem warranted public notice. He thought the level of coagulant the city used was a recommendation from the DEQ, not a required minimum.
Krueger said city records show that many times over the last decade the coagulant level was below what triggered the DEQ notice for July 5 and July 31. Staff noted the failure in the regular monthly report to the DEQ.
“It’s obviously a more critical issue now that it’s been brought to our attention by the DEQ,” Krueger said.
Thurston discovered the problem during his review of the city’s monthly reports. He visited the plant and met with city officials on Sept. 5 before issuing the violation notice on Sept. 27.
Thurston noted during his visit that one of the treatment basins had less coagulated mass suspended in it than the other and suggested that perhaps one of the coagulant feed lines was partially plugged. A subsequent city investigation proved his observations correct.
Krueger’s supervisors pointed to the plant’s outdated technology and antiquated systems, not human error, as the main culprit behind the failure.
“Most of that equipment is original to the plant,” said City Manager Jered Ottenwess. “I’m concerned any time we have a violation at the treatment plant, but I think they’ve done every thing they can to correct it.”
Dave Green, the city’s director of public services, said officials are working to replace the manual monitoring system with an automatic data collection system to monitor chemical feeds into the water supply. The system also will have automatic alarms to notify staff when there is a problem.
Until then, plant employees will begin hourly monitoring of the water, as opposed to testing it once at the end of the day. The city also contracted for a reliability study to identify other needed plant upgrades.