Biofouling has “nothing to do with human-made waste or anything of the kind”: Second of a two-part series
Editor’s Note: On Feb. 25, the Sun published an article headlined “T or C water department director mum on possibly major problems with city’s well field.” The article, which included data gathered from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the New Mexico Environmental Department, had been precipitated by an alarming statement made by Jesse Cole, the water and wastewater director for Truth or Consequences, during the Jan. 27 city commission meeting.
Director Cole, who declined multiple requests from the Sun for interviews and information about his statement, broke his silence at the city commission meeting on March 10.
Cole has not reported on the city’s water and wastewater repair and replacement plans, if they exist, in the 18 months the Sun has been covering the city beat. On the 10th he spoke for nearly an hour on various city water system issues. The first part of this series, posted yesterday, reported on and assessed Cole’s remarks on water line breaks. This article will report on and assess his remarks about the well field located in the southern part of T or C near the municipal waste transfer station.
The Sun transcribed Cole’s presentation verbatim from the meeting video.
CLARIFICATION OF THE MEANING OF WELL FIELD “FAILURE”
During a discussion at the Jan. 27 commission meeting of which projects should have priority in the city’s upcoming application for Community Development Block Grant funding, Cole said his first choice was the construction of a new well in the north part of town. It was needed for “redundancy,” should “failure” occur in the southern well field.
In response to a city commissioner who expressed her opinion that replacing water pipes should take greater precedence, Cole said: “If there is no water to put in water lines, there is no need to replace them.”
After the meeting, the Sun asked Cole to clarify his alarming statement, giving him two weeks to respond, but he declined to provide further explanation.
In a parallel effort to discover if something was wrong with the city’s southern well field, the Sun searched commission meeting minutes and filed Inspection of Public Records Act requests with the city. The Sun also requested records from and queried NMED and the Office of State Engineer.
Documents laboriously scoured or received provided various insights, such as the eye-opening fact that only three of eight wells in the southern field are in operation. Well 8 was closed down in 2017 for “massive biofouling” and the city ordered $90,000 in repairs to rehabilitate it. Nevertheless, it has remained offline. Well 7 was examined the same year and was also shut down, after testing found the clarity of its water ranged from “cloudy” to “black.”
In his March 10 report, Cole said his comment about “failure” referred to “mechanical or other forms of failure” and had nothing to do with the southern well field. He did not elaborate.
Well 8 has not come back online, Cole said, because it “has mechanical failure and case slippage.” When the city commission approved the $90,000 repair of Well 8 in 2018, according to commission meeting minutes, then City Commissioners Rolf Hechler and Kathy Clark asked city staff to double check if the recommended repairs should also include replacing the casing.
Cole did not address whether the engineering assessment of Well 8’s needed repairs was remiss. Nor did he offer an opinion about what it would take to get the city’s youngest well—it was constructed in 1991—working again.
Cole’s made no mention of Well 7.
THE NEED FOR “REDUNDANCY”
A new well is needed in the north, Cole explained to the commissioners, to provide “redundancy . . . to ensure ample water supply in the upper-zone tanks, without having to rely on two sets of booster stations to move the water up there.”
Cole said the northern tanks are the highest point of the city’s water system, implying that gravity, rather than pumping, will aid in distributing the water through the northern “zones” of T or C. But water produced by a new northern well, before it can be distributed, would have to be piped for miles to the city’s only chlorination plant on Cook Street on the south side of town. After treatment, the water would then have to go through the two booster stations Cole wants to bypass before being distributed to the north.
The water department director did not address the issue of the cost of piping water from a northern well to Cook Street at either the Jan. 27 or March 10 commission meetings. He also did not state whether his $1.8 million cost estimate for the northern well includes the construction of a nearby chlorination plant.
A $10 million waterline-replacement project soon to be undertaken includes millions of dollars in upgrades to the Cook Street plant. A second chlorination tank is to be constructed at Cook Street for “redundancy.” Local public funds are paying for nearly $5.5 million of the project.
Making a northern well a priority—when it appears fixing the booster stations and pump pressure are more urgent—does not make sense unless the southern well field is failing. If the southern well field is not failing, then chlorination-treatment redundancy, a northern well and miles of piping are not a priority, and local residents should not be asked to fund those capital projects.
The Sun has asked Cole for engineering reports demonstrating a northern well is needed. He has not responded, but the Sun will ask again.
The Sun’s above-referenced article raised the possibility that the “biofouling” in Well 8 might be related to its proximity to the city’s solid waste transfer station. The transfer station has no sewer hookups, so water runoff is absorbed into the ground.
Cole disputed that possibility on March 10. He informed the commissioners that biofouling is caused by “iron bacteria,” which “is not harmful to humans, though it does cause pipes to corrode.” Biofouling has “nothing to do with human-made waste or anything of the kind,” he asserted. “We check five separate locations every other week in T or C for a total of 10 samples per month at specified locations. If there was a problem, we would know about it well in advance.”
The Sun’s continuing research on biofouling uncovered a less sanguine perspective articulated on the Minnesota Department of Health’s website. “Iron bacteria are small living organisms that naturally occur in soil, shallow groundwater, and surface waters,” the website states. “These bacteria combine iron (or manganese) and oxygen to form deposits of ‘rust,’ bacterial cells, and a slimy material that sticks the bacteria to well pipes, pumps, and plumbing fixtures. Iron bacteria may help other organisms grow.
“Iron bacteria are not known to cause disease. However, they can create conditions where other disease-causing organisms may grow. They can also affect how much water the well produces and may cause clogging issues. To be safe, test the water for nitrate and coliform bacteria. Make sure the well is properly constructed, located, and maintained.”
Cole was emphatic that “all of our wells are safe and sanitary with 100 percent confidence.” However, he did not discuss the operational status of the four wells, in addition to Well 8, which are offline in the southern well field.
“FALSELY ACCUSED ABOUT MONITORING”
Cole next addressed the Sun’s reporting on the enforcement actions imposed on the T or C water department by the New Mexico Environmental Department in recent years, a listing of which can be found on NMED’s “Drinking Water Watch” website.
“I would encourage all who attempt to utilize this tool become more educated on how it works and what the data is before interpretating [sic] it into incredulous blogs,” Cole said, referring to the Sun. “We’ve been falsely accused about monitoring and the violations through [sic] the NMED Drinking Water Watch website.”
This is what the Sun wrote about the city’s infractions found in the “Enforcement” section of the website:
• March 2020, the city was cited with a “major” infraction of the routine monitoring requirement for chlorine levels.
• February 2018, the city violated the “public notice rule linked to violation,” but the Sun could not ascertain the nature of the violation that should have been reported to the public.
• February 2017, the city violated the “lead and copper rule,” apparently exceeding the allowed thresholds.
• December 2016, the city was cited a second time for not publishing its yearly “consumer confidence report.” The city may have violated that rule again since then. The last consumer confidence report on the city’s website is dated 2019.
• November 2016, the city was cited with a “minor” infraction of the routine monitoring requirement for E. coli bacteria.
• August 2016, the city failed to publish a “consumer confidence report.”
Online NMED-DWB (drinking water bureau) documents show that 27 “enforcement” actions have been taken against T or C in the last five years. These included eight acknowledgements of the city’s achieving “state compliance,” a figure that does not match the six violations recorded for the same time period. In addition, there were six “state public notification requirements,” and six matching “state public notifications received,” but the city was sent seven “reminder notices of violations” before it supplied the required data.
By comparison, Tucumcari, a city about the same size as T or C, had three violations and eight enforcement actions over the last five years documented on the NMED website. Unlike T or C’s situation, there was a match between the three violations and the three enforcement acknowledgements that state compliance was achieved.
Cole specifically addressed only the March 2020 violation, stating, it was “a routine monitoring requirement for chlorine levels,” and that it “occurred back in 2016.” He explained that the sample in question was “either missed or not properly notified to the public when [the water department] did their disinfection byproducts [test] in 2016. This major infraction, so-called, just achieved compliance March 2020. That’s when the city was able to get all of their paperwork done to say, ‘OK, this is now off of our back.’ So, this violation that we were told, brought to our attention, was not a violation.”
The water department director did not explain why it took four years to resolve the 2016 violation. Instead, he accused the Sun of misinterpreting this enforcement action. But it is he who isn’t sure if the violation was precipitated by a missed sample or failure to notify the public. NMED, not the Sun, called the violation “major.” NMED, not the Sun, recorded that the violation occurred in March 2020.
Cole did not acknowledge that lack of reporting and communication with NMED and the public are violations in themselves. Nor did he explain that the unresolved 2016 violation was restated as a 2020 violation by NMED.
The other five violations listed on the website that were reported by the Sun, Cole said, “all revert to violations that occurred in 2017 and beyond. There’s nothing from 2017 to the present that has been brought to the violation table. These are all just continuations of existing violations that happened beyond that time frame.”
The Sun’s comparison of T or C’s number of water system infractions to Tucumcari’s, Cole continued, “is the likeness of comparing one person’s checkbook to another’s. Everybody has their different priorities. Everybody has their own issues with paperwork, reporting, and to compare two towns in this instance, it’s impossible to get any realistic comparison regardless of size.”
After insisting the Sun shouldn’t compare T or C with Tucumcari, Cole then compared two towns that he did not identify. “After further analysis of two similar-sized towns, violations are similar and follow a very distinct pattern. As state rules change and are imposed, regulatory enforcement actions follow.” The reason for such actions, Cole added, is that new rules “can be missed and then become a violation.”
A section of the Sun’s article on the southern well field was titled: “Self-Reporting Not Working.” This statement was based on the fact that many of the 27 NMED enforcement actions taken against the city, as stated above, relate to the water department’s failure to report or submit paperwork to clear up infractions.
Cole vociferously objected to the terminology, flatly stating to the city commissioners: “We do not self-report.” He tried to narrow the definition of self-reporting by insisting the city submits all its water samples to a third party, which sends the results on to NMED. However, the water department’s monitoring and reporting duties extend beyond taking regular water samples.
Cole went on to manufacture another grievance with the article, erroneously claiming the Sun had accused his department of faking its water sample results.
This is what the Sun said about the city water department’s self-reporting:
Neither the biofouling of Well 8 nor the cloudy-to-black water in Well 7 was reported to NMED. NMED records also show that Well 7 is still active, although it is not.
City reporting to local stakeholders is also inadequate. Water Department Director Cole has never reported to the city commission or to the public on the status of the city’s southern well field or on the problems that have required Well 8 and Well 7, in particular, to be taken out of operation. He has not divulged publicly or to the press whether he has investigated the cause of those wells’ biofouling and murky water or determined whether proximity to the transfer station is the culprit or whether the remaining three wells are also in danger of contamination.
The Sun’s Feb. 25 article made no mention of the city’s water sampling practices, which Cole disclosed for the first time publicly at the March 10 commission meeting.
The city samples water at 40 sites throughout the city each year, which are sent to a third-party lab, Cole reported.
“For a third-party lab to falsify would be risking their state accreditation of New Mexico State’s stringent laws,” he stated. “It would also be a huge issue for operators to falsify anything like this.”
City Commissioner Frances Luna, owner and editor of the Sierra County Sentinel, also chided the Sun, although not naming it directly.
“What Jesse [Cole] says in his report, it shouldn’t go without note,” Luna said. “To falsify that report, you’re drinking that water, you’re bathing in that water, your kids and your family are and it’s just unacceptable and unreasonable thinking of someone, to make that accusation. And I’m sorry that you dedicate your time to the City of T or C and the residents and that’s the kind of flack you get for it. Please know that the city doesn’t take your dedication or the staff’s dedication lightly.”
Acting City Manager Traci Alvarez added that city workers have been “verbally abused” while working on water main leaks, noting that racial slurs have been directed at some of them. Alvarez asked residents to refrain from talking to city workers about their grievances and advised them instead to contact the city commissioners, department directors or the city manager’s office.
The Sun has repeatedly contacted city commissioners, department directors and the city manager with questions about the condition of the city’s water system to no avail. Truth or Consequences officials and staff typically respond only to Inspection of Public Records Act requests for information from the Sun, which they legally have 15 days to fulfill.
Cole said toward the end of his presentation that his employees should be “lauded” for their hard work. Mayor Sandra Whitehead didn’t need Cole’s prompt. She came with certificates of appreciation for all water and wastewater department workers, which she handed out during the meeting.