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Pinehurst, Seven Lakes Alerted on Water Taint

BY RYAN C. TUCK: ONLINE NEWS COORDINATOR

Update on this story.

Residents of Pinehurst and Seven Lakes had been on alert for 24 hours as of Saturday evening, waiting to hear when it would be safe to drink their water again.

The Moore County Public Utilities Office notified all customers on the Pinehurst and Seven Lakes water system late Friday that coliform bacteria had been detected during a routine testing of an area water supply. Fifteen such tests are conducted each month, as required by the state.

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Health-care facilities went on backup water. The county ordered restaurants in the affected area to close. Pinehurst Resort scrambled to look after the needs of a full complement of guests.

A water-boil advisory was to be in effect until at least midnight Saturday for the 20,000 customers of the two systems.

County Officials were awaiting the test results on the contaminated sample, which was transported Friday evening to a certified lab in Southern Pines. Those results were expected late Saturday, after The Pilot went to press.

"We are doing everything possible to verify the results of the test and to test the system and to protect the drinking public," said Marcus Jones, county public utilities director. "We understand the seriousness of the issue and are doing everything in our power to control the situation."

Utilities department workers spent all day Saturday treating the water supply with chlorine and resampling and retesting the problem site.

The presence of fecal coliform, or E. coli, bacteria indicates that the water might be contaminated with human or animal waste. The contaminated water could cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea and headaches, particularly among children and those with weakened immune systems.

"This is very serious," Jones said. "If you're in doubt, you need to call us."

The county set up hotlines for residents who had concerns about their water. Jones that more than 1,000 customers had called in by noon Saturday. He encouraged all residents to continue to use those numbers: (910) 947-6315 and (910) 947-6317.

General guidelines on ways to lessen infection are available from the Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.

Officials alerted the media and posted a notice on the county government Web site Friday evening after the contamination was confirmed by retesting the water. The notice told all customers to boil their water before use until further notice.

Bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes and food preparation, the notice stated.

County Health Department Director Robert Wittmann revoked the operating permits for all restaurants and service venues on the water supply for as long as the advisory is in effect.

"As soon as the supply is not contaminated we'll do what we did, but in reverse," Wittmann said.

Health-care facilities, including FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital and retirement centers, were forced to use their backup water supply systems as long as the advisory was in effect.

"We're sticking with bottled water," said Gretchen Kelly, director of public relations at Moore Regional Hospital.

Kelly said the hospital had not seen any cases related to the contamination as of Saturday afternoon.

Many variables could be at play in causing the contamination, said J.D. Monroe with the Public Water Supply Division of the N.C. Division of Environmental and Natural Resources.

In his 20-plus years with the state, Monroe said he has seen about 20 fecal coliform contaminations, though "not on this scale."

"It could be something isolated at this (site)," he said. "It could have been contaminated by the sampling or transport. The sample could have been contaminated. It could have been sewage."

County officials will know nothing until the water sample results are returned from a certified testing lab.

After the initial test came back positive for fecal coliform earlier in the week, public utilities workers conducted additional tests upstream and downstream from the site Friday. Of the three repeat samples conducted, one sample showed bacteria present.

Monroe and Jones said it is doubtful that there was any foul play involved. Both also said it is unlikely that the county contamination is related to similar reports Friday in Cary.

A water boil advisory was issued for Cary after fecal coliform was found in its system.

"We think it's an isolated incident in both cases," Monroe said. "But when you have two positive samples, you have to go through this procedure."

More on this story.

Check ThePilot.com for updates on this developing story.

Ryan C. Tuck can be reached at 693-2507 or by e-mail at ryan@thepilot.com.