Around 6:45 a.m. on Friday, Frank McWain’s phone started to ring.
In call after call, residents of the Hillyard mobile home park he manages, Easy Acres Mobile Home Village, wanted to report something strange: The water running out of some their taps was green; others had low or no water pressure.
A tenant had filled a milk jug with water that was “bright green and it looked like it was algae,” he said.
McWain relayed their concerns to the city of Spokane, he said, but didn’t get the response he was hoping for.
“They sounded confused and a little hesitant to believe me,” McWain said.
So McWain said he took action himself. He shut off the water to the village as a precaution, took samples of green water to a lab for testing and eventually took samples to the city – in person.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to wait for them to come out here,” he said.
He said he arrived at the lab by about 7:40 a.m. The city says it first got a report of possibly contaminated water around 8.
McWain said a crew from the city of Spokane made it out to check meters in the area at about 8:45 a.m.
When city personnel arrived, they didn’t have to look to hard for evidence of what was going on, said Dan Kegley, director of water for the city. At a fire hydrant on at East Wellesley Avenue, crews found hydroseed – a mixture of seeds, mulch and fertilizer – lying all around it.
Then they found other hydrants clogged with fiberlike material, blocking water flows.
The city suspects that the contaminated water came from a commercial hydroseed vehicle that used the city’s fire hydrants on Friday and allowed water contaminated with mulch and fertilizer to back-flow into the city’s water supply.
Kegley’s teams quickly secured the contaminated area of about 100 to 120 properties, encompassed by Wellesley Avenue, Freya Street, Crown Avenue and Havana Street, but it wasn’t until noon that he issued a no-drink notice to residents.
In some ways, that was a prompt response: The testing of water samples for contamination hadn’t yet been completed, but Kegley said he was concerned enough about the possibility of chemicals in the hydroseed to go ahead and issue the order anyway.
But the no-drink order didn’t come until about four hours after the possible contamination was first reported, and McWain said he heard about it first from the news, not from the city. The city, he said, “never personally told me anything,” and the first time he saw any notifications to his residents was after 4 p.m.
And there was something the city didn’t tell McWain and area residents: Some of the area’s water was contaminated with E. coli.
The city found that out Saturday, when results came back from Anatek Labs, which received samples from eight sites for chemical testing and 15 samples for coliform testing, which checks bacteria levels in water, including E. coli.
The good news was that the tests showed no chemical contamination in the water that rose to any containment level.
“We were at least aware that the chemical (contamination) didn’t pose a threat based on what we saw,” Kegley said.
But the coliform tests revealed three positive E. coli-contaminated sample spots.
E. coli is a bacteria and, while most strains are harmless, a few can cause disease. One particular strain of E. coli can lead to vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. Symptoms can set in as soon as a day or up to a week after being infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the city has kept its no-drink order in place, the city had not notified any residents of the E. coli results as of Tuesday, when The Spokesman-Review requested water sampling reports.
City spokesperson Marlene Feist said the no-drink notice, which came four hours after the initial report of possibly contaminated water, was more protective than what the city might have issued for a confirmed bacterial contamination. Normally, that would be a boil-water advisory.
No one has reported illnesses related to the water contamination as of Tuesday, Feist said.
But McWain said he wished the city had been more forthcoming about what it found.
“I just feel like there was some stuff that they have held back,” he said.
And he said that put him in a tough spot: “Ultimately, my job here is to ensure the safety and well-being of my tenants.”
Kegley’s team closed the valves to the neighborhood’s water system and began the unidirectional flushing of the water system before test results even came back on Friday. After flushing the entire water main, Kegley’s team went to re-sample the area for coliform on Saturday.
This time, only one site tested positive for coliform and none tested positive for E. coli. A positive coliform result means that there is still potential for E. coli, so Kegley ordered a “superchlorination” of the pipes from Havana Street along Wellesley Avenue and up Myrtle Street all the way to Rowan Avenue.
After this chlorination process, the city sampled the water again on Monday.
The city received these latest samples Tuesday, and no coliform or E. coli was detected at any of the three spots they tested.
After a briefing with the Department of Health, Kegley and his team agreed to do 10 additional samples at five locations on Tuesday.
If the city gets all-clean results from these samples Wednesday, Kegley should be able to OK opening the water valves this week.
“If all those samples come back clean, I’ll call the Department of Health, and if everyone’s comfortable, I’ll open up the valves and lift the restriction,” he said. “If any one of those should come back with coliform or E. coli then we will look at extending our timeline and doing more chlorination throughout that area.”
The city replaced all the meters in the affected area, which includes 100 to 120 properties or residences, including some businesses. The smaller residential meters cost about $200 each, Kegley estimated, meaning this contamination has cost the city at least $20,000.
The tainted water is difficult for a community like Easy Acres to clean because the city only cleans and can service water up to their outlet meter sites.
The community has its own water lines, and separate water samples pulled from Easy Acres tested positive for E. coli, and the city is working with them to chlorinate and flush out their water to get their water system clean again, too.
Steve Goldfrick, a water department foreman, said crews will dig up the end of the village’s water line to make sure the water coming out is clean. Then, they’ll go to each individual home to make sure there are no clogs in their lines.
The Washington state Department of Health regulates the quality of the city’s water supply, and state officials are looking over water sample reports that the city is completing. City officials estimate that the water will be back at drinkable levels by this weekend, but they are working to ensure that the water is safe before they life the “no drink” order.
Residents impacted by the tainted water can pick up bottled water at the post office at 4401 N. Freya St. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As of Tuesday afternoon, the city had given out 960 cases of water, or 38,400 bottles. Residents are advised not to use tap water to drink or eat until the city lifts the no-drink notice. If residents have experienced other plumbing or water tank issues due to the contamination, they can file a claim with the city.
Officials are encouraging residents to contact the city if they notice a problem with their water by calling 311 or contacting the water department at (509) 625-7800. Residents who are physically unable to pick up water from the post office can call 311 to have it delivered.
Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.