Hillyard residents were without clean water for days due to contamination, raising concerns about the vulnerability of the city's water supply

click to enlarge Hillyard residents discovered their water was green on July 26.
Hillyard residents discovered their water was green on July 26.

For roughly a week, tenants at the Easy Acres Mobile Home Village in Spokane's Hillyard neighborhood had been without clean tap water due to reports of contamination. And one of the property managers, Kaylee McWain, is frustrated. In addition to supplying tenants with clean water and working with city staff to get water flowing again, her family has been commuting with their five children to a relative's home in Airway Heights to take showers.

"We're living it as well," Kaylee says on the front porch of her mobile home. "It's been like you're camping for a week."

Alice May, a 69-year-old Easy Acres resident, tells the Inlander that she's been taking "sponge baths" using bottled water: "We have no [running] water at all," she says.

The water crisis, which affected around 300 people in Hillyard — including Easy Acres tenants — was first discovered in the mobile home park. Early in the morning on July 26, one of the managers received reports from tenants that their tap water was green. After they reported it to the city and shut off the water at the property, a manager personally took samples to city officials. The information kicked off a mobilization of city workers to address a possible contamination and a "no drink" order in the neighborhood. It was eventually revealed that water samples taken on July 26 tested positive for E. coli, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea and vomiting.

The alleged culprit? Backflow from an unidentified commercial hydroseed truck that used a city fire hydrant on East Wellesley Avenue. As proof, city officials say that remnants of hydroseed material were found surrounding the fire hydrant: "We found large quantities of what appears to be hydroseed all around that hydrant," says Dan Kegley, the city's director of water.

Almost a week later, the "no drink" restriction was lifted on July 31 and water access restored to Hillyard residents. Officials framed the situation as extremely rare. But the short-lived water crisis raises questions about the vulnerability of the city's critical municipal water infrastructure. And while officials are investigating the incident, the hydroseed truck responsible for the contaminated backflow hasn't yet been identified. For now, the city will bear the cost of responding to the crisis, which Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman for the city, says is upwards of $50,000 in personnel overtime and other expenses.

"We don't believe it was nefarious in nature, but it definitely leaves us with a huge, huge question of how we're going to move forward with securing our water system in the future," says Mike Fagan, a Spokane city councilman who represents Hillyard. "If something like this can happen in an innocent situation, just think what someone could do with nefarious intent."

Here's how the crisis played out: After the city Water Department responded to the Hillyard neighborhood following reports, they worked to contain potentially contaminated water on July 26. Kegley says that they had the area quarantined by 10 am by closing off pipe valves to keep water from spreading outside of the area of roughly 100-120 properties. Then, in the early afternoon, the "no drink" restriction notice went out, which city officials say was highly precautionary given the fact that they had no hard evidence of possible contamination at that point.

By late afternoon on July 26, Water Department personnel were personally notifying neighborhood residents of the issue and working to replace residential water meters — which were clogged with material that reportedly came from the hydroseed truck — and delivering bottled water.

Water samples were also sent off to Anatek Labs to test for possible contaminants. But even before the test results came back, workers were orchestrating a unidirectional flush, a technique in which clean water is fed through pipes from one direction in an effort to clear sediment and contaminants. (The water is flushed out onto the street.)

"We finished the flushing early Saturday [July 27] morning," Kegley says.

On the morning of July 27 the test results from the initial samples came back: Three spots tested positive for E. coli. Subsequent samples taken later that day tested by the city's own lab showed a reduction in the potential contamination, with no hits for E. coli but several readings of coliform bacteria, which can indicate that E. coli is present.

Notably, the city didn't give any additional notice to the public about the E. coli tests. While personnel began chlorinating the containment area, no press release went out.

In justifying the city's decision not to disclose the initial positive hits for E. coli, Feist says that sufficient water usage restrictions were already in place: "We already had a very protective order in place," she says, adding that a "do not drink" order is above and beyond what is technically required for a possible E. coli contamination.

Back at Easy Acres Mobile Home Village, McWain felt blindsided by the lack of communication about the E. coli findings. She didn't find out about the test results until the afternoon of July 30.

"I wish they had said something in the beginning," she says. "It was simply, 'Don't drink the water. You can shower in it.' And it's like, kids drink water in the shower."

Additional samples taken on July 29, after the chlorination process, didn't show any hits for E. coli or coliform. But the city opted to take another 10 samples the next day before lifting the "no drink order." After sharing the results with officials from the state Department of Health, they lifted the restriction, advising affected residents to run their faucets for five minutes before drinking the water.

But the ordeal wasn't over yet. Given that the mobile home park used a private water system, the city's chlorination efforts didn't extend to the park's piping. And after finding out about the E. coli results, the managers wanted to do a full chlorination. But city officials allegedly said that they couldn't go in and unhook all of the mobile homes from the piping — a step required for the chlorination process.

Kegley says the city went "over and above" what they were technically required to do with the mobile home park after hearing concerns about the Easy Acres water supply. He says that city personnel couldn't go in and unhook each mobile home from the system because it was private property and not every tenant could grant access.

"In this instance we pulled their meters, their backflow device, flushed their system, chlorinated their system, and sampled it," he says. "They're all clean."

The inquiry into who caused the incident is ongoing. Currently, there are around 100 commercial outfits who are licensed to use city fire hydrants, but none have come forward to take responsibility.

"We're working with SPD to try and gather any kind of photographic or video or any evidence that we might have that would indicate who would be responsible," Feist says.

But questions remain about how the city can prevent a similar contamination in the future. While city officials do operate a permitting process for hydroseed companies that wish to use water from city fire hydrants — this involves inspections of backflow prevention gear by trucks and proof of trainings in operating said equipment — anyone can theoretically access a fire hydrant with a special but widely available wrench.

"I've been with the Water Department for over 28 years and we've never had an incident like this," Kegley says.

He adds that his department has been exploring acquiring hydrant locks to secure the city's water infrastructure over the past year — due in part to "system vulnerability." However, none of the products on the market are "100 percent foolproof," and fire officials are wary of equipment that might make it harder to access hydrants during emergencies.

"If somebody wants access to a hydrant that bad, I don't know if there's anything we've seen on the market that you can't defeat," Kegley says. ♦

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.