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Riverbend recovers from E. coli scare

NORTH BEND — Riverbend residents had an E. coli scare last

week when routine water system tests taken on June 12 showed traces of the

bacteria.

But a second round of tests, conducted immediately after the first

results arrived, held no trace of E. coli.

In Riverbend, the potential contamination was discovered when

the test came back on June 13. Additional samples were taken and more

than 50,000 gallons of water were flushed from the system. The remaining

water was chlorinated, according to Riverbend water systems

operator Renny Lillejord. Since chorine kills bacteria, the water was rendered

safe that same day.

Lillejord said there was no reason for the bacteria to be in the water

system because it comes from an aquifer 80 feet below ground. The water

is stored in two tanks at the end of Southeast 146th Street and the system

has been in use since 1960.

According to Lillejord, cities that use surface water, such as Seattle,

are more prone to contaminants and must be tested daily. Routine tests are

taken for the Riverbend system twice each month.

It is unknown why the first samples tested positive for the

illness-causing bacteria. One possible reason for the contamination could be

that someone who handled the samples might have had bacteria on

their hands, Lillejord said.

There are many strains of E. coli, yet most are harmless. But

several types are known to cause severe illness when they contaminate food

or water.

Health Department officials said they expect one to two percent of

all water samples to test positive for E. coli and other bacteria, but they

are uncertain what causes the errors.

The laboratory that tested the samples, Amtest in Redmond,

would not comment on why or how the water tested positive.

The Riverbend water system is independent of other North Bend

water supplies. Even if the second tests were positive and the system had to be

shut off, Riverbend could have safely been supplied by the Sallal Water

District with existing hookups.

Officials said they alerted residents as a precautionary measure, after

the first results came back positive _ because it was better to be safe

than sorry. Residents were instructed to boil their water for at least two minutes

and refrain from taking showers until the water was chlorinated.

Regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency require

a second set of tests be done when bacteria is found in a water system,

but do not require the notification of people living in the area until the

second test proves positive.

"We will assume that since the samples came back good that

there never was E. coli in the first ones," Lillejord said. "The only reason

we reacted so strongly is because the lab said there was E. coli in there."

Lillejord said he was pleased with the Riverbend

Homesites Association's actions to warn residents and that he'd rather err on the side

of precaution than have people get sick.

"I don't know if I could live with it if some baby got sick and died,"

he added.

Lillejord has held this job since 1975 and said he's never had a

bad water sample. Besides Riverbend, he is the operator for other water

systems including Ames Lake, Sallal and Wilderness Rim.

However, many residents claim they were not contacted by

officials and found out through word of mouth and from a bright yellow sign

located at the neighborhood's entrance that warned of the possible contamination.

"The thing that I'm most upset about is the fact that nobody

called. Why did I have to find out from my friend?" asked Karen Price, who

lives in Riverbend.

Riverbend association president Kelly Gall said once water

officials alerted him about the E. coli, he and other association members took

immediate action. While Gall made and placed the yellow warning sign, he

had association employees call homeowners. He said the 500

numbers on the list were called, but the association had no way of

knowing phone numbers for renters and new home buyers.

"The association went above and beyond their call of duty to make

sure that this was handled in the right way," Gall said. "Renny Lillejord did

more than was required by law to notify people."

Bob James, regional engineer for the state health department, said

there are two schools of thought for notifying people about a possible

contaminant. One option is to notify residents after the first sample tests positive,

but this could cause panic since not enough tests have been

conducted. The second way is to not tell anyone until the contaminants are

confirmed. He said no one method of notification is right.

Some residents who felt sick last week thought E. coli was to blame

but later found that they actually had a virus or other ailment. There were

no official reports of sickness from E. coli in the Riverbend area, according

to Health Department officials.

James said people often link their current ailment with the news of

a possible food or water contaminant.

"I think it's human nature that people try to connect events to

one another," he said, explaining that the symptoms for E. coli are very

severe and people would know to go to the doctor. Health agencies usually

take stool samples to confirm the bacteria's presence and are required by law

to notify the health department of any cases. Symptoms include severe

headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting.

Even though the scare is over, several households are still using

bottled water they bought last week. And many will never forget the fear

generated by the contamination warnings.

"It was kind of ironic because we were making lunch and we were

debating whether to have pop or milk and I said we should have water

because it's good for us," said 19-year-old resident Brooke Vassar.

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