Prichard mayor recommends water boiled, then backs off somewhat as ADEM says water is safe

Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 1:06 PM CDT
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PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) - Mayor Jimmie Gardner on Monday recommended that residents here boil water and then later backed off it somewhat as state environmental officials indicated the water is safe.

Gardner said he was reacting to a report by Alabama Department of Environmental Management, first reported by FOX10 News, detailing massive financial and infrastructure problems throughout the system. Among those deficiencies was a finding that in some instances, the concentration of chlorine had fallen below 0.2 milligrams per liter. That is the minimum threshold recommended by ADEM to keep drinking water safe.

Gardner said he was troubled by the report and compelled to speak out.

“We don’t want to see a Jackson, Mississippi, here,” he said at a news conference, referring to health concerns over drinking water in that city that have drawn national headlines. “And certainly, we don’t want to see a Baltimore, as well. I think it is beyond time that the issues and concerns related to Prichard water must be addressed.”

But ADEM issued a statement assuring residents that the drinking water in Prichard is safe. The agency stated that the system’s aging pipes are “not necessarily indicative of problems with the quality of water provided to customers.”

ADEM also noted that 30 samples collected last month did not reveal the presence of E. coli or total coliform.

“All of the samples were negative, which is an important indicator that the water is free from bacteriological contamination,” the report states.

Nonetheless, while Gardner amended this earlier statement to emphasize that it was merely a suggestion, he added in the follow-up written statement that, “I still stand with suggesting the boiling water was well as drinking bottle water.”

Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board Chairman Russell Heidelburg told FOX10 News that he knows of reason why people should avoid drinking he water> “As far as I knew, it’s not unsafe,” he said.

Asked about Gardner’s comments, Heidelburg said: “That’s a non-expert making his opinion known.”

The Prichard water system buys treated water from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System and then sells it to residents in Prichard and Chickasaw.

Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Kevin Michaels told FOX10 News that the risk of insufficiently chlorinated water is that it could allow those bacteria to grow inside the pipes.

“As it goes through, the chlorine constantly disinfects the water,” he said. “So, if the chlorine drops below a level, potentially, there could be some type of bacteria in the water.”

The utility is independent from city government. Prichard’s only role is for the City Council to appoint the five board members. But after that, the city has no oversight responsibilities, and the council cannot remove members form office before their six-year terms expire.

Still, Gardner said, he feels an obligation to his citizens.

“I want to make sure that they’re safe,” he said. “So I’m offering up the idea that maybe we should consider bottled water, as well as the boiling of water, as well as the filtering of water and those kind of things.”

Gardner floated the idea of the city providing bottled water to citizens, although he did not have an immediate estimate of the cost. He said he has reached out to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and U.S Rep. Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) but had not received responses from either.

“I’ll be reaching out to others to get some assistance in dealing with what I believe is becoming a crisis,” he said.

Lonnie Miller, who has lived in her current house for about two years and in the Alabama Village community her entire life, said she already uses bottled water.

“But I’m very concerned about it, about my grandchildren, ‘cause I had them all the time,” she said.

Updated significantly at 6:02 p.m. with additional details and responses from water board Chairman Russell Heidelburg and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.