I drove by King Phillip’s Spring last weekend. Yes, it really is closed. Strange to see the absence of the pipe that used to attract so many people carrying water bottles and jugs.
In my original post on this subject, I reported that the state Department of Environmental Conservation removed the pipe after conducting a general test for coliform bacteria. Since not all coliform indicate the presence of harmful pathogens, some people wondered why the agency did not perform a more specific test, so I did a little more digging.
DEC had said that it was following protocol set forth by the state Department of Health (DOH). But couldn’t it have gone beyond the protocol?
“Nothing prevented us from doing a more specific test,” DEC spokesman David Winchell told me. “However, it would not have altered the decision because we are following DOH regulation. They are the authorities and the regulatory agency when it comes to drinking water.”
I also contacted DOH to ask why the agency does not recommend performing the more specific coliform tests for roadside springs. I wondered if it had to with cost. Here’s the e-mailed reply from Juan Merino, an agency spokesman:
“The DOH does not regulate roadside springs. Since the springs have no long-term periodic testing [and] they have no protection and no treatment, the DOH recommends that people do not use that water.
“It has nothing to do with expenses, the tests are not expensive. It would simply be impractical, since the quality of the water could fluctuate from one day to another. Even if a sample shows that the water is fine one day, the next day it could make you sick.
“A coliform test could be a good indicator of contamination, while the E. coli test [which is more specific] could also indicate fecal contamination.
“The Department strongly discourages drinking water from roadside springs. The main concern is that since that water is not protected it can have all kinds of pathogens that make people sick, caused among other things by human and animal waste. There’s a number of water-borne illnesses, due to different pathogenic bacteria, among them giardia, escherichia coli, and cryptosporidium.
“In the event that we get an illness outbreak and in the history of the people affected we find out that many of them drank water from a particular roadside spring, we would ask the property owner to put [up] a sign advising people not to consume water from that source.
“Other than that, there are no regulations in place and the Department doesn’t routinely sample those springs.“
I didn’t think this quite answered the question. If a test shows a high level of coliform bacteria, that doesn’t necessarily mean the spring is contaminated. Whether or not the results might be different on a different day, why not order the more specific test?
I gave DOH another chance to answer the question, but Juan Merino’s reply again failed to satisfy: “Neither DOH nor DEC regulates roadside springs. DOH makes every effort when possible to discourage the public from using them as a source of drinking water.”
I tried one last time to get a direct answer to the question, but Merino wrote back that DOH officials “feel they have made their position clear on the matter.”