City officials first detected a problem with the Cumberland water plant when they noticed a sharp drop in water pressure Friday morning, Mayor Loretta Cornett said. The no-usage advisory was downgraded to a boil-water advisory at approximately 5 a.m. Saturday, and several businesses are still being affected.
"It's getting back on track, but it was like all of a sudden the water was disappearing and we were filling up with mud," Cornett said. "We're still trying to figure out what happened."
Notices posted throughout the weekend attributed "low river conditions" and an "untreatable water supply" to the advisories. Letters posted at city hall and elsewhere informed the public that the "potential exists for a bacteriological contamination."
Cornett said drought conditions and a hard rain on Thursday were cited by environmental officials as factors that likely caused the contamination.
"It didn't help our water plant," Cornett said, "but we're safe." She said water samples that should be returned to the city today or Tuesday will likely show that heavy loads of sediment caused the contamination, not mine runoff or other assumptions that are "floating."
"It's probably mud coming into the system that is normally treated with a chemical ... but it wasn't reacting to the chemical," said Dustin Haley, an operator at the city's water plant. "We don't know for sure what's caused the problem."
Haley said officials with the state Division of Water, who arrived in Cumberland on Friday afternoon, have already confirmed that the only contamination in the city's water supply was dirt. Water quality is improving, he said, but the boil-water advisory will remain in effect until further notice. City officials are expecting the issue to be resolved today or Tuesday, he said.
"Anything is possible. Where we're in a drought, it could have been something kicked up from the bottom of the creek," Haley said.
Haley said the water plant, which gets its supply from the Poor Fork tributary, has been inundated with phone calls from customers, some with concerns and others with questions. Customers are encouraged to call the water plant at 589-4024 for questions or further information.
Haley is reminding the public that a boil-water advisory should be adhered to with caution. Water should be boiled at least three minutes before using.
"Anytime you would ingest water, you should boil it" during an advisory, Haley said.
Cornett said she is grateful to the employees who have "pulled long hours" at the water plant. "We're staying on top of it," she said.
Cornett also said the city council will be looking at other ways of warning the public of potential hazards, especially elderly residents and those with satellite television who don't have access to a community channel. She said a siren would be one way of warning residents to tune into their local radio station or community channel when their attention is needed.