By Greta Mart, KHNS
When a routine test indicated there might be dangerous bacteria in Haines’ drinking water last month, Alaska’s environmental health department ordered residents and businesses to boil all municipal tap water before consumption. The E.coli scare faded two days later when another water test came back clear.
But the boil order had already taken a toll on local businesses, including eateries. The Haines Chamber of Commerce plans to ask the borough to draw up procedures to mitigate that impact if a water scare were to happen again.
Adam Richard is owner and chef at the Fireweed Restaurant. He says the boil order made it impractical to stay open. They closed for two lunches and one dinner service.
“It was a good chunk of money, it was in the thousands of dollars, especially when you include all the employees’ wages and tips that they make, it was definitely a financial hit for everybody in the restaurant,” said Richard.
Sarah Jaymont, owner of Sarah J’s Café, says she also closed early after learning of the notice.
“The next day I rallied and came in and boiled I don’t even know how many gallons of water to run our business…I shut the business on Friday, I didn’t have it in me to boil water like that again. And that was a surprise cruise ship day… So I lost a fair amount of revenue on Friday, not being open with a huge boat in town,” said Jaymont.
With income and public health at stake, some eatery owners are concerned with the way they were notified of the boil order. The Haines Chamber of Commerce plans to ask the borough to establish new guidelines for handling future water contamination scares, particularly when it comes to alerting restaurants.
Chamber Board President Kyle Gray wants the borough to set up effective communication and protocols to help businesses stay open or possibly deal with financial losses during boil orders.
“The Borough – they are held to certain regulations so they had to do what they had to do, which was give the boil water notice, which is what they should have done,” said Gray. “And it’s our job to look out for the business community. I guess we’re going to want to know if there is anything they can do to mitigate that in the future, if something like that were to ever happen again. Specifically for the businesses.”
According to state laws, the owner of the water system is responsible for alerting consumers that a boil notice has been issued by the state. In Haines’ case, that’s the borough.
“The day we found out, we had members of water/sewer crew out providing leaflets to residents and businesses…the mayor and I went out together and we went to every business that’s in the food service industry; every business that is heavily reliant on water to talk with them and provide them the information we had so they had a good understanding of what was going on,” Borough Manager Dave Sosa.
But Richard and Jaymont say they found out in a different way.
“We got a call from another restaurant that let us know. So we just checked the borough website and the next day we made some phone calls to the borough. We hadn’t been notified directly by them,” said Richard.
Jaymont says she first learned of the boil notice from a customer, and didn’t get official word from city workers until about 7 p.m. on June 24th – the day the boil notice went into effect.
“Knowing that other establishments around town had been notified before five p.m. really upset me. So I think that some sort of standard operating procedure that says OK, all food establishments, all restaurants that are serving the public water and are using the water….there’s got to be some sort of chain of action that they are the priorities,” said Jaymont. “Knowing that offices and grocery stores are – not that grocery stores aren’t important – but they aren’t handing over fists of smoothies and cups of water and stuff that people are consuming. Like what if it was for real?”
Although communication could have been better, Richard and Jaymont say they’re grateful to have access to clean water in the first place in a remote town like Haines.
“I know people work really hard to provide those services for us. So I try not to take it for granted that we have those things and just get angry that we didn’t have water for a day,” Richard said.
“I don’t know, I think it hit home for me how much our community, this is such a valued resource. It would be great if we had a better measure to be checking and testing our own stuff so that maybe a false positive doesn’t happen in the future,” Jaymont said.
The boil notice was rescinded two days after it was issued – when another test of the water came back normal. Borough employees say they are trying to determine the cause of the positive test. Interim Public Facilities Director Brian Lemcke says it’s possible it was a false positive or human error but they don’t know for certain.