By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Nearly a fifth of all water samples collected from the North Lee County Water Association this month tested positive for bacteria, according to results from the state Department of Health.
The agency drew 33 samples throughout the association’s service area between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11. Of them, six contained a bacteria known as total coliform, which itself is harmless but indicates that other, potentially dangerous bacteria are present.
“But whether or not that bacteria is pathogenic … we don’t distinguish,” said Melissa Parker, deputy director of the MSDH Bureau of Public Water Supply. “We don’t differentiate other than to go a step further to identify if it’s E. coli because it’s an indicator of some type of sewage or fecal material in the water.”
All coliform-positive samples tested negative for E. coli.
Other pathogens, which were not tested by the state, include Cryptosporidium, Ciardia lamblia, Legionella and a host of enteroviruses, which can cause flu-like symptoms or gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhea, vomiting and cramps, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The samples were drawn in the days following a series of public allegations against the association by current and former employees. They claimed the supervisor made them work side jobs for him while on the clock at North Lee and that water samples were falsified. They also claimed they were made to clean sewer lines with the same equipment used for water lines.
The supervisor, Dan Durham, denied the allegations but was forced out by an interim board of directors.
In the meantime, the testing will continue. Investigators from the Public Service Commission have overseen water collection from at least 35 different sites throughout the association’s district. They’ll be analyzed soon, said Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.
And the interim board last week requested the Department of Health return to pull more samples of its own.
Last year, North Lee samples had tested positive 21 times for total coliform, according to its Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, published in June in the Daily Journal. Of the violations, more than half arose from the Barnes Crossing system. The Lake Piomingo system had five, Birmingham Ridge had two, and Red Hill had three.
All samples tested negative for disinfectants like chlorine and inorganic chemicals like lead, cooper and floride.
In his resignation letter Oct. 11, longtime association board President Mitchell Scruggs said recent tests prove that North Lee’s water is safe to drink.
But that doesn’t satisfy customer complaints that it often emerges from their faucets dirty, cloudy and foul-smelling.
“The water ranges from light brown to really good ice tea color,” said Deer Park resident Debra Byrd. “We have to filter ours to drink and to cook with. We even have captured containers of water and watched the sediment settle to the bottom.”
Mississippi Rural Water Association officials have acknowledged the problems and said they’re not uncommon, especially in this part of the state where large quantities of iron are present. Iron, according to Parker and the EPA, causes the amber color in the water and can produce sediment.
Manganese is another chemical element often found in water and is responsible for causing a brown or coffee tint.
Neither is harmful, just unpleasant.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that pretty, pristine clear water does not necessarily mean safe water, and the opposite is true,” Parker said. “Water that has some color in it, that might look at a little brown from time to time, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unsafe. What we’re looking at is bacteria. Things like color, iron, manganese … doesn’t mean it’s not safe.”