QUINCY — The comparison of the Flint, Mich., water crisis with the Quincy water system in a report regarding the 2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home was compared by one city official as being “slapped in the face.”
The report from a group of researchers at Virginia Tech hypothesizes temporary changes made to the city’s water distribution system created favorable conditions that allowed Legionella bacteria growth throughout the system, as well as increased water lead levels. The report, funded by the state of Illinois, compares the changes at the Quincy plant with the Flint water crisis, but specifically notes there were no legal violations here, unlike in Flint. Findings of the report were first reported Wednesday by St. Louis Public Radio.
“The city of Quincy has made changes to its treatment plant, but we’re investing dollars to make our water better, and to say that somehow that we’re equivalent in any way to Flint is just a slap in the face to our community,” said Jeffrey Conte, director of utilities and engineering for the city of Quincy.
The report believes that the July 13, 2015, storm that knocked down hundreds of trees and cut power to a majority of the city increased raw water turbidity in the Mississippi River and resulted in lower total chlorine residuals entering the municipal distribution system.
Conte said there were several misleading statements and one “patently false claim” where it said the city switched its primary disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine in December 2014.
“That is absolutely false,” Conte said. “The city had been using chloramine as its disinfectant since at least 2006. That was when the last permit was issued by the Illinois EPA, so we did not in fact change the disinfectant.”
He said the city did switch to chlorine in November 2015, but before that the city was using chloramine from the when water first enters the plant throughout the water distribution system.
The first case at the Veterans Home was identified Aug. 6, 2015, with an outbreak confirmed on Aug. 21, 2015, when the second case was diagnosed.
At least 13 people died, and dozens more were sickened from a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home that year. Other outbreaks were reported in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Five days after the identification of the initial outbreak, Illinois Department of Public Health officials met with Veterans Home officials and found that the “central hot water tank may be associated with (the) outbreak.” One of the campus hot water tanks was out of service starting in July 2015 because of a valve issue and was unheated until it was cycled back into service back into service Aug. 6, 2015. One official referred to the water as a “broth of Legionella-ripe water” since it sat in optimal growing temperature for at least 30 days.
However, a 2018 report from the Illinois Department of Public Health reported two cases showed an onset of symptoms before the water was cycled back into service. One was a community-based case with no connections to the Illinois Veterans Home.
Overall, four community-based cases were reported in 2015.
“In 2014 and 2015, the city of Quincy invested in its treatment plant and made some upgrades, which made it such that we could get better removal of the precursors that cause disinfection byproducts,” Conte said. “That allowed us to go using chlorine as our primary disinfectant, which is a better disinfectant, just because it’s stronger. It’s more powerful.”
Between 2014 and 2016, gas and chemical feed systems were replaced in the water treatment plant, and modifications were made to the clarifier and filter beds.
The report also claimed the discontinuation of phosphate as a corrosion control could have released more lead into the water system, citing an increase in children testing positive for heightened blood lead levels in June 2015, though the study noted similar spikes in monitoring data in Adams County in previous years.
Conte said the city did discontinue the use of phosphate during upgrades at the plant in 2015, but that with the level of phosphate the city had been using, it shouldn’t have affected the lead levels in the system.
“We used it a very low level prior to our filters, and we used it as what’s called a sequestering agent, and that was to prevent lime scale from building up on the filter media and clogging the media,” he said.
He said the low dose — 0.4 to 0.5 milligrams per liter — the city was adding would have been too low a dose to have an effect in the city’s distribution system.
“We took that offline knowing that we would have potential for more scaling in the filters, but it was something we could deal with during the construction period,” Conte said. “Now when the construction period was over, we put the phosphate back online. It was not used as corrosion control.”
With changes to the city’s treatment process, the city now adds more phosphate. This change was after lead monitoring in 2017 showed increased levels in some tests.
“So in 2014, we were in compliance,” Conte said. “In 2017, we were in compliance, but we had more than one house that was at a level that was detectable. Obviously, the goal is to have it not detectable anywhere.
“We talked to the EPA, and we asked them about doing some pilot testing to see if increasing our phosphate dosage would help with those few homes that were seeing a little bit of lead in their water.”
The phosphate was increased to allow for corrosion control, and Conte said results from 2020 showed improvement.
The report notes that only one sample taken during the time phosphate use was discontinued showed a level that violated state requirements.
Conte also took issue with the report’s claim city water had no disinfectant residuals at the Veterans Home.
“We have a sample site that is at the Veterans Home, they always have chlorine,” Conte said. “The results they’re talking about are the ones in the campus. They had no measurable disinfectant in their plumbing. The city was delivering it.”
The city also increased its disinfectant to assist the Veterans Home after the outbreak was reported.
“At no time did we not provide the Veterans Home with the disinfectant,” Conte said. “The problem is when it went through and started going through their plumbing, the biofilm that they had growing in their plumbing ate up their chloramine, and that’s why they had no disinfectant left.”
The state spent $9.625 million as of June 30, 2018, for Legionella remediation at the home since the initial August 2015 outbreak.
The home is now undergoing a $230 million redevelopment.
The Virginia Tech report suggests that anytime changes are made in water treatment of distribution system operation, increased monitoring of water samples needs to be implemented, along with monitoring for Legionella, increased flushing and better communication between utilities and their customers.