Seven Sickened By Tainted Wells

A young family visiting Door County for a weekend in mid-September were the subject of a public health investigation when they returned to their Calumet County home and their four-month-old daughter came down with an illness that was identified as E. coli bacteria from a bovine source.

“The department of health got involved. They asked me where I was. That was several phone calls, to try to narrow it down,” said the infant’s mother (she asked that we not use their names).

It turns out the family had stayed that weekend at a West Jacksonport home now identified as in the area of concern for well contamination after a Sept. 8 manure spreading session that included spreading into a sinkhole. This was the Monday after torrential rains wreaked havoc and saturated the landscape.

“I used well water to make her bottles,” she said. “No odor or color to the water. There was no sign.”

And there was no sign in the baby that she was ill until the family returned to their Calumet County home. Then she started exhibiting signs of food poisoning and was brought in for a medical examination, where it was determined that she was infected with E. coli.

“The department of health nurse said since the E. coli was combined with a campylobacter bacteria, that’s really indicative of a bovine source. They were able to track it to the source based on the type of bacteria in the water.”

The mother said she does not understand why manure spreading is not more regulated.

“Especially with the fractured bedrock and shallow soil. It doesn’t take much for it to get in the groundwater.”

Reporting on the West Jacksonport well contamination at the Nov. 10 meeting of the Door County Board of Health, Door County Health Officer Rhonda Kolberg said drinking manure-contaminated well water in the area of concern after Sept. 8 sickened a total of seven people.

“They were spreading as they normally would. They spread into a sinkhole, which they should not have done,” Kolberg said. “We found out about it because the people with the affected well called DNR, and their water was brown and foamy.”

Mark Borchardt, the U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who helped track down the 2007 source of contamination at The Log Den when 211 customers and 18 employees were struck with gastro-intestinal illness from norovirus at the recently opened restaurant (the outbreak was eventually traced to the restaurant’s new septic system), did the viral testing of the West Jacksonport wells.

“He was trying to find a correlation between manure and the water,” Kolberg said. “He did determine it was bovine contamination.”

Kolberg said Borchardt will be doing more research in Door and Kewaunee counties. “He’s a very good scientist and one of the top people in this,” she said.

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh geology professor Maureen Muldoon said she and Borchardt are working on a grant application to study viral contamination in Door and Kewaunee counties.

“We know if it’s less than 10 feet to bedrock and you spread manure, it’s going to go into the aquifer, we know that,” she said.

Muldoon was also part of the karst task force, which released a report in 2007 warning about groundwater contamination if the standards were not raised.

Muldoon said there was a lot of activity and media coverage when the report was issued, and it had an effect among the converted in county conservation departments and industry experts, but nothing really happened legislatively and it “died on the vine.”

Kevin Erb, Conservation Professional Development and Training Coordinator for UW-Extension, served a lead role on the karst task force. He said both Brown and Calumet counties actually did take up some practices outlined by the task force.

“There have been some significant changes that have occurred, but a lot of recommendations that were not implemented,” he said. “But, overall, progress has been made.”

Unfortunately, he said, it often takes a contamination incident to wake people up to the reality of the fragile situation.

At the recent Board of Health meeting, Kolberg announced that Door County has formed a manure study group, which held its first meeting on Nov. 5.

“We looked at the goal, to address groundwater quality and health issues related to manure spreading in Door County,” she said.

The task force wants to make the issue of too much manure on a karst landscape one of the top issues for the biennial Door-Kewaunee Legislative Days, when a group is tasked to meet with lawmakers in Madison to impress the importance of Door-Kewaunee issues on them.

Kolberg said this was attempted in the past, to ask the state to forget the one-size-fits-all agricultural rules and recognize that different parts of the state have different challenges, and that this region should be designated a karst area, with special provisions related specifically to that fragile environment.

“It would allow us to have different regulations based on our geology,” she said.

“I hope there is a sense of urgency about this thing, because we are a unique and separate environment up here,” said committee member and county board supervisor Mark Moeller.

“It’s a political issue and it needs support from the county board,” said committee member and county board supervisor Roy Engelbert.

Kolberg pointed out that public health is all about gaining knowledge. “Things that were once acceptable become unacceptable,” she said.