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Drinking Water Safety

March 07, 1996
By: Adam Levine and Lara Hearnburg
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Before drinking your next glass of water, you might want to consider how safe your water is. The Missouri Natural Resources Department is encouraging public water systems to take a closer look at the safety of drinking water. A recent report from the DNR says dangerous bacteria is finding its way into drinking water from tanks where the water is stored.

Bob Atkinson, Environmental Engineer for DNR, said that tanks can cause problems in drinking water.

"Elevated and ground storage tanks are a major source of contamination of drinking water in the distribution system," Atkinson said.

In a small town in southeastern Missouri, water tanks were more than a potential problem. According to a report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, salmonella poisoning in the water caused seven deaths and more than 600 illnesses from Nov. 1993 - Jan. 1994, in Gideon, Mo. The water was contaminated by bird droppings in the storage tanks.

Although this kind of contamination is rare, problems with storage tanks are not.

Clyde Zelch, president of Tomcat Consultants, who inspects water tanks in Missouri and throughout the Midwest, said that these problems are common.

"It's anywhere you go and it's not just Missouri," Zelch said." Somewhere around 75% of the tanks that we have looked at in the past six years have some type of a potential problem."

Atkinson said that the DNR is aware of the problems.

"Two tank inspection companies report that 25% of these tanks, at a minimum, are contaminated. Most are contaminated by birds and/or insects with a few contaminated by vandalism or sabotage."

DNR is addressing the problems that are epitomized by the tragedy in Gideon by educating operators of individual water systems.

The efforts by DNR focus on the dangers of ignoring any aspect of water system maintenance including distributing and storage.

Atkinson said that when water quality is evaluated, the storage tanks are often not considered.

"It appears the sanitary integrity of these tanks either is taken for granted or a forgotten maintenance item," said Atkinson. "Since the defects are so high in the air it may be an out of sight, out of mind situation."

In the seminars offered to operators as a part of DNR's efforts, what happened in Gideon is used to encourage regular tank inspections.

The mayor of Gideon at the time of the deaths there doesn't think that encouraging inspections is enough. Instead, former Mayor Linny Hatley said that he feels that inspections should be required.

"Definitely if there had been either DNR regulations or state regulations about inspection, the problems in Gideon could've been avoided," Hatley said.

The storage tanks in Gideon, however, are still not being inspected on a regular basis.

Current Gideon Mayor Louise Shock said, "Maybe cities like us are just a little bit laxed on that and maybe we should have it (regular inspections)."

Currently, the Natural Resources Department does not require regular tank inspections or maintenance.

Zelch said that he feels like DNR's educational effort is adequate to address the problem.

"DNR is doing a good job," said Zelch. "DNR has put this out in front of all the water systems, the importance of competent periodic inspection."

Zelch suggests though that the public can take a more active role in showing concern about the sanitation of storage tanks in their communities. He said that people can obtain tank inspection reports from local governmental officials.