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Routine water testing indicated the presence of bacteria in the water systems at three public schools last week, prompting those schools to stop using running water use for drinking and hand washing.

However, further testing proved those returns were false, officials said Friday.

St. Mary’s County public school officials were told Dec. 18 that bacteria was found in the water systems at Chopticon High School, Leonardtown Middle School and the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center. All three schools use water drawn from their own wells. The Maryland Department of the Environment conducts routine testing on school water supplies.

Before a second round of tests gave the all-clear to the water supply, those schools had to stop using running water on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week. Water coolers were brought in for drinking water and hand sanitizers were used for hand washing, school officials reported. Styrofoam trays were used at lunch so that dishwashers didn’t have to be used. Bottled water was used in the school kitchens for food preparation and for cleaning.

Toilets at the schools continued to use the well water.

Daryl Calvano, environmental health director of the St. Mary’s County Health Department, said Friday the initial tests reported the presence of E. coli and coliform bacteria. E. coli is a pathogen from warm-blooded animals and can make humans sick, whereas coliform can come from various sources, he said.

Both health department and school officials said they were told Friday by the state the testing results were false, after a press release from the school system was distributed.

“You assume they’re accurate until proven otherwise,” Calvano said of the tests.

Brad Clements, deputy school superintendent, said something went wrong along the way with the water samples. “It may not be taken correctly. It may not be stored correctly.”

However, “we had no choice” but to use backup supplies after the initial test results, he said. Those supplies are kept in a warehouse in the event of water outages.

The affected schools were put back on their own water systems on Friday. Friday was the last day of school for students before the winter break. They return to classes on Wednesday, Jan. 2.

jbabcock@somdnews.com