NORTH BEND — Rob Sherard has a running tab of all the money he’s lost — and the things he’s been forced to buy — after he closed his bar because of contaminated water.
The Mt. Si Pub list includes boxes of frozen pizza bought from Costco, bottles of tonic water from QFC and bags upon bags of ice. Then there are the tomatoes, lemons and limes he had to throw away. And the biggest cost: Five days of lost revenue when the bar was closed. Five lost days of drinks, karaoke and the ultimate bar moneymaker, a Seahawks game.
After his business was ordered closed because of the boil advisory, Sherard spent four hours drafting a two-page risk-management plan, which was approved by a state Department of Health official. Mt. Si Pub reopened Tuesday — word spread fast enough that there was a line waiting outside to be let in — but a warning is still taped to the front door: Do not drink the water.
Sherard is among the 5,000 people in the North Bend area who have had to boil their water since Sept. 18, when the Sallal Water Association discovered E. coli in some of its water samples. Sallal said it doesn’t expect to lift the boil advisory until Friday, at the earliest.
E. coli was found in one of the three wells that supply water to the entire system. Sallal issued a boil advisory, telling residents to only drink bottled water, or water that’s been boiled for one minute and then cooled. This includes water used for brushing teeth, washing dishes or preparing food.
Sallal members’ experiences since then have ranged from minor inconveniences, like having to remember each morning to use bottled water for brushing their teeth, to removing all raw products for meals served at the two Snoqualmie Valley schools in the Sallal system, or bathing children in water from jugs purchased at Safeway.
At the Mt. Si Pub, Sherard can’t prepare anything raw in his kitchen, but he’s required to serve food in order to stay open. So the menu is limited to packaged pizzas and hot dogs, instead of the usual deli sandwiches and wings. Contaminated water may have flowed through the soda guns, so he’s only serving cans. He can still serve beer from kegs. He taped over the bathroom sinks to stop anyone from using them.
The cause of the contamination remains under investigation, but Sallal has concluded that it wasn’t from vandalism or someone breaking into the system, said Sallal board President Eric O’Brien.
“I’m not mad at them,” said Sherard from the kitchen of his pub, where there’s a pot accompanied by a sign reminding employees to boil water for two minutes at 320 degrees, then keep it at 140 degrees, in case they need water for dishes or other cleaning. “Just the situation.”
The nonprofit, member-owned water association has never had a systemwide contamination in its 50 years. Last November, Sallal issued a “do not drink” order to 82 homes near its water tower after discovering that the tower had been vandalized and contaminated with leaves, branches and debris.
News of the recent contamination — and plans to chlorinate the water for at least two months — swirled through a community that places an emphasis on the purity of its water. While other cities, including Seattle, add chlorine, fluoride or sodium hydroxide to its water, Sallal doesn’t add anything.
“It does taste different,” said Tom Sroufe, who moved to the WindRiver neighborhood from Snoqualmie last year. “It has been, up until now, pristine. They’re deep aquifers that have been protected by levels of soil.”
E. coli live in human and animal intestines and can cause illness when spread, according to the state Department of Health. Symptoms include severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloody stool. The infection can lead to further complications of kidney damage and damage to other organs in a small percentage of people. Young children and seniors are most at risk for complications, the health department said.
Sallal customer Barbara LeBlan occasionally watches an infant and a toddler at her home in North Bend. When she received an email about the boil advisory, she immediately called the infant’s mother to tell her to rewash all the baby’s bottles. LeBlan and her husband already had two cases of bottled water in their home emergency supplies, so they didn’t have to rush out to the store like others. She dumped out all the ice in her freezer, ran the trays through the dishwasher and then boiled water for more ice.
“The first morning was time consuming, but with just two of us it’s not bad,” she said. “I guess this should be a good alert for people about having three days supplies’ on hand.”
At an emergency meeting Wednesday at the Snoqualmie Casino, Sallal members praised the association for providing bottled water, first from a supply donated by the Snoqualmie Tribe, and then on an account at QFC and Safeway, as well as a large recycling container at a North Bend park for the plastic bottles and jugs.
But they also voiced frustration over the association’s notification system — some people didn’t receive any messages about the advisory until after Sept. 20 — and confusion about what they can and can’t do with the water.
Is it safe for hand washing? Yes, said Bob James of the Department of Health, as long as you dry your hands thoroughly. What about bathing children? Yes, provided that they don’t get any water in their mouths.
“There’s a lot of speculation, and a lot of fear,” one resident said in the casino ballroom filled with 250 people.
Others, echoing Sherard’s questions at the pub, wanted to know if the three businesses within the Sallal system, Mt. Si Pub and two others that have remained closed, will be compensated in any way. O’Brien, the Sallal board president, said the board would look into how, or if, it can compensate members and businesses, but reiterated that they are a nonprofit, member-funded organization.
“If you want someone to pay for it, turn to your right,” he said. “That’s who is going to pay for it.”
At Mt. Si Pub, Sherard estimates that he’s lost $10,000, totaling what he’s spent and in lost revenue. He projects that he can operate for a limited amount of time under the current water restrictions.
“Two weeks I can make it, because I have no choice,” he said. And after that? “I have credit cards if I need them.”