Monday, May 26, 2014

Boil Alert Fails to Serve Community

My own assessment of this week's boil alert is that it was pro forma, and that if this had been a real public health issue we'd all be screwed because Portland Water Bureau's process sucks (it is too slow, and lacking the information people really need).

A risk assessment from this week:
By the time the boil water order was given Friday morning, we'd already been drinking the questionable water for 3 days.  County health department officials have yet to report any discernible uptick in disease reporting (diarrhea) for the Water Bureau service area, so, how questionable was the water?  I think we can assume one of the following: 1) the bacteria were all dead, present but DEAD, and therefore harmless -- our tests don’t distinguish live-and-harmful from dead-and-harmless, and since PWB does not wear gloves (they use chemical hand-sanitizer instead) when they collect samples, dead-but-still-present bacteria can be transferred from hands to sample, 2) the E.coli was a friendly variety regularly found in our gut, 3) the bacteria count was really low and within a range most immune systems could handle, 4) the contamination wasn't widespread, or 5) the tests were misleading, possibly even wrong (after all, the immediate follow-up tests ALL reversed the results).  

Willamette Week tried to put the risk in perspective when the West-side-only boil water order went out one weekend in 2012:  “Probable number of live coliform bacteria that triggered the boil water notice: 1; number of that same bacteria U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations allow in a 4-ounce stick of butter: 1,100.”  (click here for that article) 

Here is how this week unfolded:
On Tuesday, May 20, a water sample at the outlet of a Tabor reservoir tested positive for a problem indicator known as Total Coliform, which was then identified specifically as E.coli.  A follow-up sample was taken as soon as that E.coli result came in, to verify the result and rule out error.  That follow-up sample came back clean.  On Wednesday, May 21, a water sample at a site down by the waterfront came back positive for Total Coliform, which was then identified as E.coli.  Again, a follow-up sample was taken as soon as that E.coli result came in, and that follow-up sample came back clean.  On Thursday, May 22, a water sample at the outlet of a Tabor reservoir tested positive for Total Coliform, identified as E.coli.  That result prompted a follow-up test on Friday, and while the City was waiting on the results to that test the Oregon Health Authority ordered Portland Water Bureau to issue a city-wide boil water notice.  Two of the three sites had already retested as clean.  The community had already been drinking the water for 3 days.  In my opinion, this boil order was largely pro forma.  

Yes, given the rarity of three days of E.coli positives, this case warranted special caution and OHA took it.  The pattern seemed to suggest that the last test would come back clean (and it did), and that the "event" might not really even be one of contamination, but possibly a flaw in testing protocols.  (Should we really count dead bacteria the same way we count live bacteria?  Shouldn’t quantity factor in this trigger system at some point?  Are these protocols really protecting public health by raising the alarm at the right time?)  The people at OHA didn't feel comfortable waiting another 24 hours (on top of the 72 already on the clock) to make that call and I sympathize with their decision.  Although, I don’t see what good it did as it was three-days late for the people who really needed it (the immunocompromised) and the risk was overstated for the rest of us.

A government process that fails the community:
A boil water order sounds like an emergency, doesn’t it?  It might surprise you to learn that a boil-water order in Portland can come after the risk has passed, when the water is already clean again (as it did in this case).  It might surprise you to learn that a boil water order can be given in Portland after even a single, dead, harmless bacteria is found in a water sample -- recalls on other products only happen when a threatening number of live bacteria are found in the product. 

A boil water order only protects public health if it is timely AND if it is actually necessary.  Late orders leave people vulnerable to real-time outbreaks.  Overstated risks cause panic, and panic causes decisions that are themselves public health risks.

Businesses, residents and schools full of kids flew into a panic on Friday, investing energy and resources into coping with the order because they thought they were in the midst of an emergency.  I was in our local elementary school on Friday when the kids started panicking because that morning they’d brushed their teeth, washed some fruit, or simply had a big glass of water.  It was a sea of little faces staring at certain but as-yet-unquantifiable doom.  When I explained they’d all been drinking the questionable water for 3 days and yet they were all still fine and could go about their normal day without worrying about what would happen, they were normal, safe kids again.  This extra bit of information helped frame the real risk of the situation and empowered them to make good decisions, including: focusing on their schoolwork instead of every little bubble their gut was making.

Our public officials did not clearly communicate enough facts so that individuals could make solid risk assessments on Friday.  Information leads to accurate risk assessment, the kind that individuals need to be empowered to make for themselves.  Water Bureau said, “boil your water.”  They didn’t make it clear that you’d been drinking the water for 3 days already.  Or disclose virility of the E.coli (alive vs dead, dangerous vs friendly species, quantity present).  Or attempt in any way to help us assess the risk they rather vaguely announced.  Because I already know a little about this boil-alert process, I was able to make some risk assessments for my friends and family.  For instance, in this particular case, since we’d all come through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday unscathed, my family kept using the water for teeth brushing, hand washing, dishwashing as we normally would and we substituted in some bottled water for Friday just to reduce our potential bacterial load.  This seemed reasonable, given the circumstances of this case.  Yet, I see people online so uninformed about the real risks facing them this week, that they are now trying to figure out how to clean their hot water tanks.

As a community, we should ask the following:
1) If this kind of detect is a real public health threat, what can PWB do to shorten the time between samples and results — there is now an 18 hour gap (or more if it is a holiday) between samples and final results of the tests?  If something dangerous shows up on Tuesday, let’s don’t wait until Friday to hear about it.

2) If this kind of detect is NOT actually a public health threat, as would appear to be the case given that there was no discernible uptick in illness, what can PWB do to better communicate the pro forma nature of this alert, so businesses and citizens aren't investing resources in a non-emergency?  Can we institute a tiered risk alert system?  Can we design a tiered boil-notice, one that can go out immediately so the immunocompromised have information on say, Tuesday (for this case)?  Can the new system come with tiered packages of actions to be taken by the community?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Community Stakeholders' Requests regarding Tabor Disconnect

The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) recruited by MTNA, produced and presented a list of seven broad requests at the May 6, public meeting (see a summary of that meeting here). Commissioners Fritz and Fish offered some responses to these requests at the June 11, public meeting (you can watch that meeting here:

These requests attempt to capture the community’s values and goals for the outcome of this major change at Mt. Tabor. The CAC will negotiate with the Portland Water Bureau and Commissioners for the items on this list.  We hope you will vocalize your support for the "Community Stakeholders' Request" to all of City Council (by email, phone, etc.).  Your calls can help this list become a priority with Council.

The link provided here will be for the latest version of this document.  It is a living document, that evolves with feedback both from the community, but also from the City employees with whom we negotiate.

Latest update Oct 8, 2014:

Here because of the Voter's Pamphlet and Measure 26-156?

If you are here to read my full statement of support for Measure 26-156, which couldn't fit in the May Voter's Pamphlet, click here for the article titled "Why I now personally support the Portland Public Water District."  If you'd like more posts on the Water District, search this blog by the label "Water Board Initiative" (on the right hand side of this page, scroll until you see the "labels" list, click on the text "Water Board Initiative").

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sewer Bureau is not immune to mismanagement

Opposition to utility management reform in Portland has argued that the drive to better protect our public utilities doesn't need to include the sewer bureau (BES). That bureau hasn't, afterall, displayed the kind of gross mismanagement and cronyism seen in the Portland Water Bureau.  Never mind that the oversight gap we've identified leaves all public utilities vulnerable.

As we are beginning to learn, BES is no longer immune to the mismanagement issues we've historically seen at PWB. Unfortunately, where there is money and lax oversight, manipulation eventually follows. 

Portlanders are now learning about a recent BES construction project -- it is just office space, it does not serve any technical, waste-management function, and it doesn't even offer that much office space as it's just for 38 employees.  BES spent over $12 million on this one building, which comes out to more than $300,000 per office.  The per square foot cost is over $1,000, which is more than 3x quality new office building space in Portland. The lobby has $1,200 chairs and the bathroom stalls have $2,000 custom doors.  This is hard to justify, yet, the director of BES gets on camera and tries to claim it was a good deal because expensive things last longer.  Sometimes that is true, sometimes it isn't, sometimes there is a price point in the middle that is both quality and affordable and people spending public money are expected to target that point. Also, sometimes your architect wants to use your pocket-book to produce a grand show-piece for his portfolio.  Employees with BES were so upset about the spending, they outed the facts, and even offered photos of decaying sewer infrastructure that they wish the money had been spent on instead.

Here are some of the reports about this new, grand entrance to the sewage plant:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Debrief - May 6, public meeting

This is a summary of the Tuesday, May 6, public meeting about the Portland Water Bureau’s construction project to disconnect the Tabor reservoirs from the drinking water system.

This was a jointly hosted Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) and Portland Water Bureau (PWB) meeting, that came about after Commissioner Amanda Fritz joined with MTNA to carve out some public meeting/feedback time during PWB’s project design phase.  

MTNA formally posed the request for a design-phase public process on April 4, 2014.  The week of April 12th, Commissioner Fritz informally charged MTNA with the task of recruiting a Community Advisory Committee (CAC), to work in an intense, compressed public process with the goal of influencing the project design with the community’s perspective regarding impacts and outcomes.  A core group of MTNA representatives (Stephanie Stewart, Dawn Smallman, John Laursen, Paul Leistner) had seven days to recruit CAC participants and to begin preparations for a first meeting with PWB staff.  The MTNA working group reached out to members from several stakeholder groups and neighborhoods.   A compressed timeline on a complex project makes for an almost untenable volunteer request, and the MTNA core group is grateful for the “yeses” we received to our calls.

I am glad that some public process is happening in the design-phase, where there was none.  However, I recognize this isn’t the most appropriate process for a project with such significant implications and community investment.  It is not a fair workload to expect of volunteers, nor is it the best process Portlander’s could do for this project.  But it is better than nothing, and we have seen some limited progress.

Water Bureau presentation May 6
The Portland Water Bureau staff (Teresa Elliott and Tom Carter) presented a slideshow, to orient attendees to the project.  This slideshow is available online here:

The CAC did not see the slideshow before the May 6, meeting, so we too learned things from it.  I am pleased to report that several improvements have been made to this project since PWB first filed (and then withdrew) the Disconnect application in January.   MTNA, and other stakeholders, were very disappointed in the January design.  Some notable improvements PWB has made since January include:
  1.  a design that leaves the water inlets functioning such that the reservoirs can possibly be filled again
  2. several of the many mature trees previously planned for cutting have been saved
  3.  the weirs will no longer be visibly covered over with concrete
The CAC continues to seek improvements in the PWB design, as well as Council commitments regarding future site stewardship.

Community presentation May 6
First, the CAC working group clarified that we are a community group that does not believe the Tabor reservoirs need to be removed from our drinking water system.  We echoed MTNA's long-standing position that this is a waste of ratepayer funds, and that we continue to seek leadership that will work on behalf of ratepayers to delay these projects.  However, we are also a community group committed to protecting the park and all of its historic resources, so we have involved ourselves in this process to try and make this lousy project as good as it can be.

The CAC working group produced and presented a list of seven broad requests, that attempt to capture the community’s values and goals for the outcome of this major change at Mt. Tabor.  We provided a bulleted list for attendees, and we verbally walked the crowd through the details behind each of those bullet points.  This list of requests is a living document, continually influenced by feedback from the community.  It has already changed, since the public meeting on May 6, and the latest copy is available by clicking here.

We will negotiate with PWB and Council for the items on this evolving list.  This is the CAC platform, and I hope you will vocalize your support for this platform to all of City Council (by email, phone, etc.).  Your calls can help this list become a priority with Council.

Community Feedback
This meeting offered the community a chance to pose questions and comments to the panel.  Reportedly, the community feedback will be summarized by the facilitators, and when it is available I will link it here.

Next steps
The CAC and PWB will meet for at least two facilitated meetings in May.  These meetings are open to the public to come and listen, but these are work sessions between the PWB and CAC, and as such we ask you to let us roll up our sleeves and work.  The CAC will spend these meetings trying to secure as many commitments to CAC requests as possible.

Mondays, May 12 and 19
6:30-9:00 pm
Warner Pacific College
Christenson Conference Room - “AF Gray” Administration Building

Public Meeting: June 11
Water Bureau will file their final design with BDS on June 4.  This marks “Day 1” in the Type III land use review process (official process outlined here: ). 

The public meeting on June 11, will give the CAC and the community a chance to see what made it into the final design.
June 11, 6:30-8:30 pm,
Warner Pacific College
McGuire Auditorium, 2219 SE 68th Ave

In July, you will have the opportunity to enter comments into the official record for the land use case regarding this construction project.  The public hearing on this land use case will likely be in the middle of August.  For a rough outline of projected dates, view my blog post: