Water problem reveals communication issues between city, campus

January 26, 2011

by Hayden Haynes, STAFF REPORTER

After possible water contamination, students were left un-notified due to miscommunication within the university.

The City of Ruston was advised Dec. 15, 2010, by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals that three of the 25 required monthly water samples sent to the state laboratory had too much coliform bacteria. 

The city sent out 10,346 letters of notifications to residents as well as to the university, according to Troy Whitman, water utilities operations manager for the City of Ruston. 

There was also a public notice in the Ruston Daily Leader, but due to miscommunication, students were not notified. 

 “Even if the water came back clear, I would have liked to know there was a possibility,” said Reed Womack, a senior biology major. “They should have sent the students notifications as a precaution.”

Tech has been on the city’s water supply since the fall 2009, and before that, Tech supplied its own water to the campus. 

Melanie Peel, director of housing, said, “I received the letter Friday (Jan. 21), and had a meeting with my staff on Monday.”

Monday, Peel said she decided to post the letter around campus near water fountains and other areas exposed to water. 

 Russell Thompson, Tech’s Power Plant superintendent, said this is the first time the university has encountered this particular problem since switching to the city water supply. 

“Tech is going to re-evaluate how they will notify students if this happens again,” Thompson said. “We’ll have to come up with a plan; this is the first time an incident like this has occurred since the city took over the water supply to the university.” 

Patrick Hindmarsh, an assistant professor of biological sciences, said there is no real alarm for students.

“I have only been in Ruston for three years, and I think this is the first notice of this kind I have received,” Hindmarsh said. “I do not feel there is any real alarm, but we should expect the city is inspecting the water supply in-house on a daily basis.”

Not only does the city test the water monthly as required by law, but the water is also tested five times a day using the same testing method.

“Our water department’s highest priority is to ensure that the community’s water supply is clean and safe,” Whitman said. “We test your water supply every day.” 

In the public notice supplied to the city, Louisiana DHH states that, “coliforms are bacteria that are naturally present in the environment and are used as an indicator that other, potentially harmful, bacteria may be present. Coliforms were found in more samples than allowed, and this was a warning of potential problems.” 

Though the exceeded number of coliforms were found, Whitman said, after further testing the water was found to be clean and safe to drink. He said if other bacteria was present, the city would have made calls directly to campus officials.

“We conducted extensive testing following this event to ensure that your water supply was safe,” Whitman said. “No contamination was found in any of the subsequent tests that were performed.”

Hindmarsh explained the risk of any bacterial contamination. 

“There is a risk to groups susceptible to infections including individuals with severely compromised immune systems, infants and some elderly,” Hindmarsh said.

This incident not only has the university looking at how it will notify students if this happens again but it also has the City of Ruston looking at new ways to notify residents. 

Richard Aillet, director of engineering services, said the city is looking into new ways to notify residents of potential dangers. They are exploring possible notification systems such as the ones used at Tech through text messaging and e-mail. 

Aillet said if bacteria would have been found there would not only have been notifications sent out and published in the paper, but they would have contacted Monroe news stations along with local radio stations to get the warning out. 

Whitman said, “You can rest assured that your drinking water is safe.” 

E-mail comments to jhh015@latech.edu.