E. Coli Scare Caused by Faulty Testing
By David Crohn

The two-and-a-half-day water alert that had residents island wide boiling their water for fear of ingesting E. coli was a false alarm caused by contaminated testing equipment, Suffolk County officials said.

Last Friday evening, June 7, two days after routine analysis at 10 testing zones across Fire Island, Suffolk County Water Authority officials found the bacteria in nine of the locations. By Monday at 3 p.m., the alert was lifted.

“The data seemed suspect,” said Michael Stevenson, deputy chief executive for administration at the Suffolk County Water Authority. But officials did not hesitate to enact the water advisory in every Fire Island community except for Ocean Beach, Seaview and Saltaire. Residents outside those communities were told not to consume tap water without boiling it first.

“It’s possible that water could be infected everywhere but [in those communities], but it’s highly unlikely,” said Stevenson. Those three communities are not serviced by the SCWA but draw from the same underground water source as the rest of Fire Island. Valves linking the water sources remain shut unless there is an emergency requiring more water pressure, such as a fire.

The SCWA and Suffolk County Department of Health continued testing over the weekend. In each round of four daily tests, results turned up negative.

No unusual illnesses were reported, said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy in a statement. E. coli can cause diarrhea, nausea and other symptoms, and is especially harmful for those with a weak immune system.

Stevenson said the SCWA will hire an independent agency to conduct an investigation that will take up to three weeks. Every person who dealt with the water samples, from here to the Hauppauge lab where they are taken, will be interviewed, he said.

“We need to know what happened to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Over the weekend, officials distributed 27,000 bottles of water and 100,000 pounds of ice to communities and restaurants across the island. It was “no easy logistical feat” given the lack of roads, said Stevenson.

By 8 a.m. Saturday, water authority employees were going door to door informing islanders of the advisory. Throughout the day employees distributed water with help from local fire departments. Ice was handed out to restaurants from local ferry terminals.

“But everyone on Fire Island was great—very easy to work with,” he said.

While residents made due with boiled and bottled water, restaurant owners were upset by the hassle the mistake caused. Kenny Adams, owner of the Inn Between bar and restaurant in Ocean Bay Park, said weekend business was hurt.

“It stopped a lot of traffic,” Adams said. “Before they brought the ice we had to buy our own. I think the water authority should reimburse us for it.”