City learns lessons from cyanotoxin 'near miss'
Wilsonville City officials are breathing a sigh of relief and taking stock of emergency management protocols after navigating a "near miss" with cyanotoxins at the City's Willamette River Water Treatment Plant in June.
In an article published in the City's monthly newsletter, the Boones Ferry Messenger, City Manager Bryan Cosgrove outlined how the city handled the situation surrounding trace amounts of microcystins in the community's water that are caused by blue-green algae. The elevated reading of 0.34 parts per billion — as opposed to the maximum of 0.3 ppb recommended by Oregon Health Authority guidelines for children, elderly and those with compromised immune systems — put Wilsonville Public Works on high alert and prompted the City to notify the community of the slightly elevated reading.
Cosgrove and Public Works Director Delora Kerber were happy with the response the City put together in reaction to the elevated test readings, but they also believe this was an opportunity to learn for the future.
"We did do a debrief and we recognized what went well, what didn't," Kerber said. "We recognized that we need to put together a more comprehensive list of various groups and businesses in our community we would want to be able to touch base with, and it ended up we did do that but it was on the fly to get ahold of schools, daycares and places that take care of seniors, etc. That was one of our lessons learned — to pull together all that information (so we can communicate on a moment's notice)."
Wilsonville was alerted to the elevated reading of microcystins after a test mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency came back showing slightly higher readings of microcystins than the OHA guidelines call for. This is similar to how the City of Salem found its water was testing higher than normal levels of cyanotoxins just prior to Wilsonville's incident.
Microcystins are one of several cyanotoxins caused by blue-green algae blooms in raw water sources. High exposure in humans can result in liver damage and cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and, in very rare cases, death.
"I appreciate how quickly City staff collaborated to get the message to the community, and how quickly local retailers responded to the increased demand for bottled water," Cosgrove wrote. "Our staff made calls to schools, healthcare facilities, daycare centers, public agencies, assisted living communities, neighborhood associations and restaurants to get the word out."
The City's first action was to increase ozonation — a water treatment process that destroys microorganisms and organic pollutants — at the Willamette River Treatment Plant. Considering the OHA's guidelines on acceptable cyanotoxins levels for healthy adults is 1.6 ppb, the increased reading can be considered negligible at most, but City leaders felt it necessary to notify the community and take immediate action to rectify the problem. Daily testing saw microcystin levels drop below OHA guidelines standards almost immediately, and the OHA is now having Wilsonville continue to test for cyanotoxins — a process that isn't executed on a typical basis — every three weeks or so. The Willamette River Water Plant has been in operation for 16 years, and it has received
good grades on each report card periodically compiled by the State, according to Kerber.
"By acting with an abundance of caution, I believe we gave people an opportunity to take precautionary measures to protect their children, elders and others whose weakened immune system could have made them vulnerable in the event of an emergency," Cosgrove wrote. "As a result of our experience and other water-quality emergencies in Oregon, the State recognizes the need to improve water-testing protocols, emergency management communication and drinking water infrastructure. Wilsonville is working with Oregon legislators — including Senate President Peter Courtney — to recommend legislative concepts to protect the watershed, expedite water testing and develop standardized water-processing communications protocols."
While Cosgrove was pleased with the City's response, he believes there is always room for improvement to any emergency management system that helps protect the community's citizens.
The Oregon Health Authority recently rolled out new rules for public water systems susceptible to such algal blooms and public water supplies that use water downstream from those sources.
The new rules took effect July 1 and require those systems to test raw water every two weeks starting July 15 and continuing through Oct. 31. Permanent cyanotoxins testing requirements are in the works.