Roberts mayor apologizes for month long boil order, explains what's next for water system - East Idaho News

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Roberts mayor apologizes for month long boil order, explains what’s next for water system

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Mayor BJ Berlin talks with EastIdahoNews.com regarding over a month of water sanitation issues. | Kaitlyn Hart, EastIdahoNews.com

ROBERTS — After more than a month of dealing with boil orders, emergency declarations, and “do not drink orders,” the Roberts mayor is apologizing to residents for miscommunication and having to deal with potentially unsafe water.

Mayor BJ Berlin tells EastIdahoNews.com the original issue with the water, beginning on Feb. 8, was due to a mechanical error.

“We found out that our chlorinator had malfunctioned and had over-chlorinated our system,” says Berlin.

That same day, officials posted on the city of Roberts Facebook page that the issue was regarding a water well that had malfunctioned, so the city decided to switch to a different well.

The post said, “The water was tested and is safe to drink.”

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Post on the city of Roberts Facebook page on Feb. 8.

When asked by EastIdahoNews.com this week if the water was safe to drink at that time, Berlin responded that he isn’t sure.

“I honestly can’t answer that. The city immediately went to work fixing the over-chlorination problem. In the beginning, we thought that the discoloration was due to the high-mineral content we have in our water,” says Berlin. “It’s not uncommon for us to get people calling us with concerns of discoloration in the water. So, in the beginning, that’s what we thought we had. Once we got more calls, we realized we had something else going on.”

RELATED | Residents are concerned and the DEQ is involved after water in Roberts comes out brown

Berlin says they are still investigating what caused the water issues and whether or not the water was safe at the time.

DEQ involvement

On Feb. 9, the city posted that the Department of Environmental Quality was now involved and residents should “run a faucet till it clears.” The post also said the city tested the water and “found it safe,” although further tests were still being done.

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Post on the city of Roberts Facebook page on Feb. 9.

Berlin says it was not safe to drink at that time, and if the city posted that the water was safe, they were wrong.

“We couldn’t say that (it was safe) for sure because we didn’t know that,” says Berlin.

Later that day, a “do not drink” order was issued, alerting residents that even if they were to boil the water, it still would not be safe to drink.

“DEQ came out because of calls from our residents. They tested the water and found the high chlorine rate. They did their tests and called me about 6 p.m. that night to let me know we needed to do a ‘do not drink’ order,” says Berlin. “So we immediately put that on Facebook.”

The next day, Feb. 10, the ‘do not drink’ order was canceled. At that point, the city alerted residents that water levels were now within a normal range.

Screenshot 2023 02 20 at 10.09.06 AM
Post on the city of Roberts Facebook page on Feb. 10.

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Post on the city of Roberts Facebook page on Feb. 10.

On Feb. 11, people were still experiencing discolored water. Berlin says the city again tried to figure out what the issue was now that chlorine levels were supposedly within normal ranges.

“The city was looking to see what the issue was as we tested back in the norms on the chlorine. Again, the minerals, we suggested people run their faucets,” says Berlin. “We thought it was a localized issue, maybe an individual’s pipes or an individual’s system, and as time went on, we realized it was an issue. The over-chlorination event we believe, we don’t know, had broken loose some sediment and things that settle in any water system’s lines over time.”

According to Berlin, the majority of concerned calls were not going to City Hall, but to DEQ. Even more so, concerns were being posted on social media groups where city officials were not aware of them.

“Once we started to hear a few calls, we looked on social media,” says Berlin. “Social media has great value, but it’s not technically a news channel. And it wasn’t being reported to the city’s Facebook page, it was a community page, so we didn’t necessarily see it right away.”

Three days later, DEQ issued a notice that the city had violated multiple regulations regarding water quality.

Berlin says this partially has to do with the fact that the retired water system operator was in the process of training a maintenance operator. Nobody from the city of Roberts was reportedly aware of some of the DEQ regulations that were supposed to be followed.

“The mayor doesn’t run the water system. You have an operator that runs the water system,” says Berlin. “Our retired operator wasn’t aware that those were violations. Therefore, when we went to do the work on the systems that we were doing, unfortunately, we were unaware that we should have contacted DEQ before we did them.”

RELATED | Locals worried Roberts boil order came too late

E-coli issues

As residents started reporting E-coli-like symptoms to DEQ, Berlin says the city never got any calls with concerns of illness related to the drinking water. He says the city found out about it from DEQ and social media.

On Feb. 25, after the water was tested and the results came back positive for E. Coli, a boil order was issued for the city by DEQ, and an emergency declaration was issued by Berlin.

The declaration opens up funds for seven days if the City Council were to need to use it in a major emergency. According to Berlin, this hasn’t been necessary yet. The boil order is still in effect as of March 9.

Berlin says he was advised that the city could cancel the boil order, but he decided not to out of an abundance of caution.

“We’ve tested clear now for several days, and I was advised that we could lift it,” says Berlin. “But I was advised by our licensed operators, people with some experience, that we should probably keep it in place until we get our whole system in place and set.”

The timeline of this issue so far spans Feb. 8 – March 7, as of the publication of this story. When asked if the water has ever been safe to drink during that time, Berlin can’t be sure.

“If your water were clear, I would have to assume it was. Again, I’m not a chemist or a scientist. Personally, I drank the water, and I still do,” says Berlin. “But, we still do have a boil order in place, and anybody who is concerned should not drink it.”

What’s next

Berlin says the city has recently signed a new contract with Mountain West Environmental to take over the licensing and water testing in Roberts. Berlin says they started working early this week.

“They work on a lot of municipal systems, so there is a little more economy to scale if you will. And they’ve got more people to do more things than we would be able to do on our own,” says Berlin. “There are people who are licensed and will be there on a regular basis. They oversee repairs and operations, wich is what the licensed operators have always done.”

Officials from DEQ say they are hopeful the boil order will be able to be lifted early next week, but the only way to know will be to continue monitoring the samples over the next few days to see if they come back clean.

“We have seen some improvement in water color, which is good,” says DEQ regional engineering manager, Carlin Feisthamel. “On Monday, if (the testing) is absent of bacteria, then we’ll discuss lifting the boil water advisory.”

Berlin apologizes for the water issues and concerns it has caused residents.

“Obviously, it’s important to all of us,” says Berlin. “Fresh water is the first and most important thing we do, where that wastewater goes is the second most important thing we do, and we’re sorry this happened,” says Berlin.

Berlin says the current plan to make sure the residents have water is to distribute cases of bottled water at designated locations around the city every other day. You can check the City of Roberts Facebook page for updates on where and when to pick up your allotment of water if you live within Roberts city limits.

If you are unable to leave your home due to disability, weather issues, car issues, etc., call City Hall at (208) 228-3220, and they will make arrangements to have it delivered to you.

Watch our entire interview with Mayor BJ Berlin in the video player above.

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