Atikokan searching for source of bacteria problem

The Ontario Clean Water Agency has filter and chemical experts coming to Atikokan’s water treatment plant to see what went wrong in its system after the Northwestern Health Unit issued a “boil water” advisory there last week.
It’s also conducting a “wet well cleanout” to see if that will prevent the Cryptosporidium bacteria from showing up in future water samples.
The Northwestern Health Unit issued the advisory last Wednesday after the OCWA reported disease-causing, micro-bacteria in the town’s water supply.
Peter Fox, client services rep with OCWA, said the Cryptosporidium–which can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and mild fever–found in tests conducted Sept. 9 may be linked to the thin film of sediment at the bottom of the two 250,000-gallon wells where the clean water is stored before going out.
That day, flows jumped dramatically because a company was in town flushing out the sewer lines. That increased demand also may be connected since tests taken one day earlier (Sept. 8) didn’t register positive for the bacteria.
“It’s all speculation,” Fox said yesterday, noting more testing was done last Friday and he’s hoping to have the results back this Friday.
If that sample comes back positive, Fox noted the speculation would have to be revisited. “It’s hard to say, certainly, a month-and-a-half after the fact,” he said.
“I doubt if we’ll ever find the source,” noted Bill Limerick, team leader for environmental health with the Northwestern Health Unit, adding the bacteria could come from anywhere upstream.
Meanwhile, Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown said he would be surprised if the water didn’t get a clean bill of health within the next two to three weeks. Three samples must come back negative before the “boil water” advisory is lifted.
“It’s just a matter of time now,” he said yesterday. “I feel pretty confident it will be negative.”
But Mayor Brown said they still wanted to know what happened at the plant, which is supposed to filter out this bacteria 99.9 percent of the time. And Fox noted the plant even had a major filter rebuild in July.
“What happened in Atikokan is interesting,” said Dr. Pete Sarsfield, chief medical officer of health with the Northwestern Health Unit. “Atikokan has a very good water treatment plant.”
But the town ran into a problem caused by low water levels, and was taking logs off a beaver dam to ensure a water supply–which Limerick noted is what prompted the Cryptosporidium testing to be done in the first place.
Fox said it isn’t a test normally done at a plant.
And when water is low, it increases its turbidity, causing more demands on the filter system.