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Health Dept. says water at two springs is risky

January 21, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

The Washington County Health Department is warning the public it is risky to drink water from two springs in the northeast section of the county.

The water in the spring on Route 491 has tested positive for coliform and fecal coliform, said Kimmy Armstrong, a registered sanitarian with the Washington County Health Department.

The second spring is on Route 40 where it runs under Route 70, near Greenbrier State Park. It also tested positive for coliform, she said.

Coliform is an "indicator bacteria that can be found anywhere in the environment, but it should not be found in water," said Barry O'Brien, an engineer in Maryland Department of the Environment's water supply program. "If it is, it's possible that other organisms could be in the water."

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Fecal coliform could indicate the presence of human or animal waste, O'Brien said.

Coliform and fecal coliform themselves do not cause disease, but the organisms associated with them do, he said.

For example, when the microorganisms Giardia and Cryptosporidium are ingested, they can cause diarrhea, cramps, headaches, nausea, vomiting and a low-grade fever, according to a Web site run by the Wilkes University GeoEnvironmental Science and Engineering Department in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"It is our obligation as a public health department to inform people that (coliform is) there," Armstrong said.

Readers have told the Herald-Mail's "Mail Call" line they drink the water at the spring in front of 24502 Raven Rock Road (Route 491) and have not experienced any health problems.

The spring is about five feet from the edge of the road, Armstrong said. There is a farm behind the spring, which empties into a cow pasture.

O'Brien said water with coliform will not automatically harm drinkers, but it's safer to avoid it.

For people with weak immune systems, the microorganisms could be fatal, he said.

Steven Davis, the resident engineer for the Maryland State Highway Administration's Hagerstown office, said residents have fiercely objected to the springs being off-limits and they have accused "big government" of infringing on their rights.

Armstrong guessed that people have been filling jugs with water from the spring for about 15 years or longer. The water has been tested several times, she said. Each time the county health department has put up warning signs, they were eventually torn down, she said.

Last month, the health department asked the highway administration to put up "no trespassing" signs at both springs because people parked on the state's right of way to get to them, Davis said.

"We got flooded with telephone calls and contacted by delegates," Davis said. Because there was no explanation for the new signs, many people accused the highway administration of being "in cahoots" with bottled water companies, in an attempt to get kickbacks, Davis said.

A week later, the health department put up signs saying the water quality is below state standards. That satisfied many of the complainants, he said.

"Our intention was strictly to help another agency and protect the public," Davis said.

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