A recent E. coli scare in Puslinch Township turned out to be nothing but an ill-advised hoax, perhaps carried out by overzealous opponents of a proposed gravel pit.
On Aug. 6, Mayor Brad Whitcombe said two recent drinking water samples tested positive for the E. coli bacteria.
The water samples were supposedly taken from private wells near the site of the proposed Roszell Road gravel pit, where residents cited past spreading of biosolids on that property as a possible source of the bacteria.
The health unit responded by telling the residents not to consume the well water or even to brush their teeth with it, Whitcombe noted.
However, it was later revealed to the mayor – by a resident who submitted one of the samples – that the water was in fact not drinking water at all, but surface water from an area next to the Speed River.
“That’s when I hit the roof,” Whitcombe said in an interview. “It was a stupid move … an abuse of the [free water testing] system.”
Rob Thompson, Director of Health Protection with the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said any reports of E.coli in drinking water samples “set off a number of alarm bells,” especially considering the eight confirmed cases recently linked to the University of Guelph’s food services.
“It’s a bit unsettling that someone would be doing that,” Thompson said of the sample tampering in Puslinch. “It’s problematic and people just shouldn’t be doing it.”
He noted the health unit has not heard anything about the matter since, and in fact was first informed about the issue by township officials.
Thompson stressed it is not uncommon for surface water to test positive for E. coli at this time of year.
While such matters are not the direct responsibility of the municipality, Whitcombe said he felt he had to speak out.
“When the word ‘Walkerton’ comes up in a conversation, as the head of council I have to act,” he said.
He added the hoax was “misguided” and “very distressing,” and such actions “erode the public process,” as council is already faced with a difficult decision about the gravel pit.
Whitcombe said he hopes this was an isolated incident and residents will remain respectful of testing well water on a regular basis. Thompson also encouraged regular testing of private well water.
Councillor Matthew Bulmer said he understands residents have concerns, but deliberately trying to deceive everyone is not a good idea.
“Sometimes when you get down and dirty the mud sticks to you, too,” Bulmer said of those responsible. He suggested the least those individuals could do is offer to cover the lab costs for the tests.
Whitcombe told council he has since been informed by township experts that E. coli does not last very long in soil, and if present would have been moving in the opposite direction. Therefore, past biosolid spreading on the property would likely not affect readings in nearby wells, he added.
The mayor stressed he is not aware of any legitimate water quality issues in the township.