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Boil-water alert lifted in Long Beach

Investigators still trying to determine E. coli source

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State, county and city officials announced that the boil-water alert in Long Beach had been lifted on Monday, after water samples tested negative for E. coli.

The Nassau County Department of Health ordered the emergency alert on June 21 after a water sample, taken from a home on Grand Boulevard during what officials described as routine testing between June 18 and 20, tested positive for the bacteria. Officials advised the city’s 35,000 residents to use bottled or boiled water as a precaution.

At a news conference outside City Hall on Monday, County Executive Laura Curran — joined by state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, County Legislator Denise Ford, County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Eisenstein and Acting City Manager Rob Agostisi — said that Long Beach’s water supply was safe to consume after state and county engineers worked with the city to increase chlorine levels to flush out the system and conducted two rounds of tests on Saturday and Sunday to determine whether E. coli was present. Those tests, officials said, were negative.

Additionally, the Long Beach school district announced that East, West and Lindell schools would reopen on Tuesday, after the district informed residents on Sunday that the buildings would be closed the next morning as a precaution.

“With two consecutive rounds of favorable results, the boil-water order for this community will be lifted, effective immediately,” Zucker told reporters. “At this stage, customers should feel confident returning to the public water supply for all uses.”

“Working with the state, we delivered well over 130,000 bottles of water to the residents of Long Beach,” added Curran, who thanked Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his support. “The most important function of your government is public safety.”

News of the E. coli in the city’s water came at the start of a busy weekend that included Pride on the Beach, which attracted thousands of people. Ford, a Long Beach resident, said that while the news had many residents on edge, many others remained calm and checked on their neighbors, particularly elderly residents.

“It was rather frightening that we can ingest E. coli and compromise our health,” Ford said.

The symptoms of E. coli include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps, Eisenstein said. The bacteria may pose a special risk for infants, young children, the elderly and those with severely compromised immune systems, officials said. On Sunday, school officials said they were told that a student had been diagnosed with a suspected E. coli infection (see sidebar)

City officials and employees distributed thousands of bottles of water outside City Hall and other locations throughout the weekend.

“What am I going to do for the weekend? Boil our water, get a couple of cases of water from the stores and survive it through,” said resident Joseph Lattanzi, who came to City Hall on Friday, only to find out that the supply of bottled water had quickly run out. “If we could make it through [Hurricane] Sandy, we could make it through a couple of days of E. coli.”

Many local businesses scrambled to clean out their ice bins, purchase bottled water and soda and make alternative preparations.

Acting City Manager Rob Agostisi said that the county Office of Emergency Management worked with city officials and workers throughout the night on Friday to deliver a second round of water on Saturday.

“This has been a truly harrowing ordeal,” Agostisi told reporters. “As this crisis played out, what may seem like a miracle was actually the city’s workforce doing exactly what it did here after Sandy ravaged the city, and what they will do no matter what is thrown their way.”

Eisenstein said on Monday that the county was still working with the state Health Department to determine the source of the contamination. He added that cases of E. coli in municipal water systems are rare.

“The chances are that we’re never going to know what caused this positive,” said John Mirando, the city’s commissioner of public works.

In a message posted on the city’s website, Mirando said that on June 19, a water sample taken from Grand Avenue — one of 10 taken that day by the city’s water plant operators — tested positive for total coliforms, an indicator of E. coli.

“All nine other samples were negative,” Mirando said, adding that three more samples were taken the following day, before plant operators notified the city on the morning of June 21 that one had tested positive. “It is not unusual for a water system to experience a positive microbiological sample with the cause often undetermined.”

Some residents expressed concerns about whether the water was safe to drink with high levels of chlorine. Don Irwin, the state environmental health director, said that water systems are routinely chlorinated. He added that the city tested all of its water wells, that the samples showed no evidence of E. coli bacteria, and that chlorine was increased as a precaution to protect from biological contamination.

“When we do get these cases, which is rare and sporadic,” Eisenstein said, “very often we don’t find the source, but the chlorine that’s put in the water eradicates it.”

Asked whether the city’s 100-year-old water infrastructure made the growth of E. coli more likely, Irwin said it would not if the system is maintained properly. Mirando said that the water systems are tested at least 40 times a month to ensure water quality.

Mirando told News12 that the city’s infrastructure was “doing its job,” and that the city has been replacing water, sewer and gas lines street by street. In May, the City Council approved a $60.1 million capital plan that included $9 million in bonds to replace a 100-year-old water tank.

Anthony Rifilato contributed to this story.