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St. Ignatius boil water order downgraded

ST. IGNATIUS — A boil-water order issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for the town of St. Ignatius was repealed Tuesday after several water samples taken Monday from previously contaminated wells came back clean. The town remains under a health advisory until further notice from the DEQ.

“We will still be chlorinating the water for a period of time, but I can’t tell you how long that’ll be,” public works director Ray Frey said Tuesday.

After a July 19 test of St. Ignatius town water showed it was contaminated with E. coli, chlorinators were installed July 22 on both wells in question and one was shocked on the 26th. Samples taken July 29 from two wells on the town’s north water system “were both total coliform negative, so that’s good,” said Greg Butts, a field services supervisor in the Montana DEQ’s public water division. 

For the DEQ to downgrade the boil-water order, five distribution system samples had to test negative for coliform. While the DEQ’s order meant city water was deemed unsafe for residents to consume without boiling it for at least a minute, Butts explained, St. Ignatius Mayor Charley Gariepy noted that the contaminated water was only in the town’s north water system.

Possible symptoms of E. coli-caused illnesses include diarrhea, cramps, nausea and headache, but “most of the strains of E. coli are not pathogenic,” Butts explained. 

E. coli, one of several strains of coliform bacteria, generally comes from waste water, he added, and exposure to it can be particularly problematic for people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, infants and small children and people with severe illnesses. 

According to Butts, no one knows for sure how the water was contaminated. However, he said that a few weeks ago, overflow water from St. Mary’s Lake spilled into an aquifer and groundwater that’s normally 10 feet under the surface started popping up around the area. That groundwater could have contaminated the well, he said. 

Butts said he was also told that there was a sewer system backup during the week before July 23, and wastewater could have somehow gotten mixed with the well water.

“Those are two potential things that could’ve happened,” he said.

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Frey said that although he couldn’t name a cause for the contamination, the town will be able to release that information soon.

“(The contamination is) just something that happened; we had no control over it,” Frey said. “We didn’t create the monster.”

Butts said he thought the town handled the issue properly, although some residents felt they should’ve been notified of the problem sooner. All residents were notified within 24 hours of the confirmed E. coli sample, he said.

“Things have gone well … the town of St. Ignatius has complied with what our (DEQ) rules are for public notices,” he said.

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