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Bacteria in Water is Mill Town’s Latest Crisis

August 15, 1992

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (AP) _ For almost two weeks, the taps have been spewing bacteria-fouled water in this dying mill town, forcing residents to buy bottled water or trek to fire stations for free water.

It’s the latest emergency to hit Pawtucket, already reeling from a statewide banking crisis and the conviction of former Mayor Brian Sarault on federal racketeering and extortion charges.

State health officials urged residents to boil tap water or use bottled varieties on Aug. 3 after tests revealed the presence of fecal coliform or E. coli bacteria, found in human waste.

That means about 100,000 residents of this northeastern Rhode Island town and neighboring Central Falls and Cumberland have been cooking, brushing their teeth and bathing infants with purified water.

Gov. Bruce Sundlun signed an executive order Thursday declaring a state of emergency. On Wednesday, Sundlun had asked for economic disaster relief from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

City crews have been flushing out water mains and adding chlorine and acid to the system in efforts to get rid of the bacteria.

But restrictions on water use could be in effect for a month, said Peter Kerwin, city community and government affairs aide.

″It stinks,″ said Debra Lafreniere, 33, toting her daily ration of two gallons of free drinking water from a fire station.

″I’m having to pick up water all the time and I don’t have a car,″ Lafreniere said.

Lafreniere, who has two children, said she wipes rubbing alcohol on her face after showering to kill any bacteria.

E. coli can cause diarrhea, nausea, headaches, fatigue and jaundice, state health officials said. Infants are at greatest risk, said Dr. Barbara DeBuono, state health director.

Officials of the Pawtucket Water Supply Board think the bacteria entered the lines during installation of 13,000 feet of new pipes. The work may have dislodged bacteria-laden sediment from the bottom of the old pipes, some of which were more than 100 years old.

The city’s water comes from the Scituate Reservoir.

The emergency has been a boon to retailers who sell bottled water and entrepreneurs such as Lewis Watkins, 23, who was selling T-shirts outside city hall last week. His shirts show a disgruntled family carrying jugs of water with the caption ″Pawtucket Water Buffaloes.″

″It’s comic relief for the city,″ Watkins said. ″I wanted to do something to get people laughing, something positive.″

But there have been plenty of negatives. After complaints were received about some retailers, Mayor Robert E. Metivier warned that price gougers trying to take advantage of the shortage would be prosecuted.

Donations from distributors of beer, soft drinks and bottled spring water have helped ease the emergency at nursing homes and other health care facilities.

Memorial Hospital, the area’s largest medical center, has been drawing from its own emergency 8,000-gallon storage tank, said spokeswoman Louise Paiva.

Resident Jacqueline Veloso, 66, said the contamination was especially worrisome for her because she suffers from intestinal problems.

″I’m afraid,″ Veloso said. ″I boil all my water for cooking.″

Veloso also boils the water she gives her two Lhasa apsos, although health officials have said the tap water is safe for dogs, cats and other pets.

Tim King, 25, wondered how the disabled and elderly were coping.

″I’m younger, I can walk″ to get water, King said. ″I’m mad at the city because I think they can do something better. I think a lot of people are missing out.″

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Forsher said officials are delivering bottled water to disabled residents free of charge.

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