‘They dropped the ball’: Some Hedley residents drank unsafe water unaware of ‘do not consume’ order

Frustration is bubbling over in the tiny Similkameen town of Hedley, B.C.

Residents are forced to rely on bottled water after the Interior Health Authority (IHA) issued a “do not consume” order last week.

Officials said elevated levels of coliform and arsenic means water is unsafe to drink, even if boiled.

“The lab tests for two separate things: they test for total coliforms, which is environmental bacteria, and they test for E.coli, which is in relation to fecal contamination,” said Robert Birtles with IHA. “The lab did not indicate that fecal contamination was present.”

“[Residents] shouldn’t drink the water, use it for making ice, baby formula, brushing your teeth or for cooking,” he said. “They can still use it for sanitation.”

It’s believed the water contamination was caused after contractors attempted to replace a pipe across 20 Mile Creek that was compromised during the spring freshet.

The Hedley Improvement District said water testing was completed last Tuesday and the results came back on Friday, which prompted the health warning.

Travis Barck, chief water operator with the Hedley Improvement District, explained to Global Okanagan on Sunday how residents were notified of the order.

“Lynn Wells called Hedley residents Friday night and then Saturday we had a team of people that went out and delivered the notices in paper form to people’s doors,” he said.

However, some residents said they were forgotten.

“I just really think they dropped the ball,” said Hedley Country Market owner Douglas Bratt. “I didn’t get a notice at my house, my neighbour didn’t get a notice and my other neighbour didn’t get a notice. That is just three people on my street didn’t get notices.”

He said he consumed the unsafe drinking water on Saturday morning.

“I live above the pump house,” said Linda Dechamp, another Hedley resident. “How can you forget me? I’m right up there.”

Bonnie Sawiuk is a healthcare worker and said the contaminated water is of particular concern for seniors.

“Sometimes they don’t fully comprehend what is actually happening with the water and some have consumed it,” she said.

Global Okanagan reached out to the District for comment, but is yet to receive one Monday.

Birtles said it will review the notification process with the water supplier.

“With any rural community it is possible that people could have got overlooked in the notification, we will have to check with the water supplier as to what the success rate of issuing the notification was,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the face of adversity the strength of community spirit is on full display.

The market is distributing donated jugs of bottled water.

“My two son-in-laws went out and hand-delivered them to the more compromised people in town last night,” Bratt said.

West Kelowna resident Dave Dionne handed out bottled water on Monday to strangers.

“I just saw your news report about the water situation here so I bought a few cases and I’m just handing it out for the day,” he said.

Birtles said it could be some time before Hedley residents can resume the consumption of tap water.

“It is really difficult to get an ETA because we have to get test results back,” he said.

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