By Terri Harber
Cryptosporidium can draw - and work up - a huge crowd these days in Baker City, as city, state and federal officials try to figure out how the microscopic parasite got into the city's water and infected an estimated 300 to 400 residents.
Approximately 250 residents attended a special Baker City Council meeting Thursday evening.
The meeting was moved from City Hall to the Baker High School auditorium because the former has room for only about 50 people.
The 2?-hour meeting was punctuated with audible gasps, clapping hands and occasional angry shouts.
People were asked to write down their questions as they entered the auditorium. Mayor Richard Langrell invited people to ask questions after selecting a few from the thick pile of paper.
When city officials first found out about local people getting cryptosporidiosis (the illness that comes from exposure to crypto), they weren't sure what was the source of the parasite, City Manager Mike Kee said.
A lab test at St. Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City confirmed the first case on July 29.
(Kate Dimon, director of Historic Baker City Inc., was diagnosed with crypto on July 26 at a Portland hospital.)
Alicia Hills, the county health department's nursing supervisor, said the department notified the city the next day after two more cases were confirmed.
The city announced the positive cases on July 31 and issued the boil order that morning.
Samples of Baker City water collected on July 31 showed the presence of crypto "oocysts" - the protecting shell that makes the parasite resistant to the chlorine the city adds to its drinking water as a disinfectant.
Although 15 cases have been confirmed by lab tests, officials are estimating the actual total as 300 to 400 based in part on door-to-door surveys.
When someone asked during Wednesday's meeting how many people in the audience had had symptoms consistent with crypto, dozens of people raised their hands.
Although the City Council has been discussing for several years installing an ultraviolet light system to inactivate crypto, they learned Wednesday that because of the crypto outbreak, the city might need to build a more expensive filtration plant.
Filtration would remove crypto as well as protect against some other possible sources of contamination, such as mud and ash that could foul water sources after a wildfire, that UV light wouldn't deal with.
Bill Goss of the Oregon Health Authority's Drinking Water Services, said that once the water boiling order is lifted - there's no timeline for that - the state will consider whether to change how the city should protect its water supply against crypto and other waterborne parasites.
A decision could come within a couple of months.
The city needs to have two consecutive tests with results of "zero oocysts" before the water boiling order could be lifted, Goss said.
Councilor Kim Mosier asked Goss if that were likely to happen.
Getting to that point could require a "considerable length of time," Goss said. But it's the only level that would allow state officials to "feel comfortable" lifting the boil order, he said.
He pointed out that 21 of the 24 water samples the city collected in 2010 and 2011 contained no oocysts.
Of 16 water samples tested since the crypto outbreak started, six were free of oocysts. The other samples contained from one to three oocysts.
A frequent question during Wednesday's meeting was why the city didn't continue testing for crypto after the series of 24 tests in 2010 and 2011, which were a federal requirement.
Neither the state nor the feds required the city to continue to test.
And single-digit levels of oocysts "are thought not to cause illness," Goss said.
The city's public works department has been focusing on Goodrich Reservoir because "it's how we've done it in the past," said Michelle Owen, public works director. It has been a "process of elimination."
Looking back, "it could have been done different," she said.
Langrell asked what the city plans to do to compensate people for their losses, such as the cost for hospital stays and the need to take off from work.
Kee responded that compensation is a matter "the council will decide."
"I feel we're being danced around a little bit," said Jim Thomas of Baker City.
His comment brought a loud round of applause.
Thomas asked for further explanation about various city procedures, responsibilities and liabilities when it comes to its water system.
"How prepared is the city for the lawsuits that will come?" Thomas asked.
Kee said running a city requires dealing with risk every day and that they are prepared to deal with that as well. He pointed out that the city's water system complies with state and federal rules.
Kee also noted that lawsuits could end up backfiring, in a sense, because the city might have to increase fees to pay for legal costs.
"We're the city; you're the city," Kee said.
Former City Councilor Milo Pope said earlier councils dragged their feet and voted against using an ultraviolet light system.
If the council had moved forward with the project sooner "we would have had it by now," Pope said.
This inspired another round of applause.
"Now we have to pay for our own filtration systems to be safe?"asked Wayne Wall. "Why doesn't the city have a filtration system in place?"
Jennifer Johnson asked whether the city could ensure that her children were safe. She has two kids in grade school.
"It's all of our responsibilities," Kee said.
A flurry of people in the audience said getting children to keep their hands clean isn't easy.
People who have been infected with crypto - and some people never show any symptoms - "shed" millions of oocysts through their feces.
The infection can be spread to other people through improper hygiene such as failing to thoroughly wash hands.
"Will school start on time?" Johnson asked.
"We haven't heard any different," Kee said.
Benjamin Merrill, assistant principal at Baker High School, said staff is preparing to serve bottled water, among other things, to keep children from becoming sick.
"I trusted the council to take care of this stuff," said Desteni Felton.
She said she was very ill recently, as were several family members.
She pointed out that people die from this parasite.
Crypto infection rarely is fatal among healthy adults, but it can be more dangerous for people with compromised immune systems because of AIDS or chemotherapy.
"Why wasn't the city taking proper precautions?" Felton asked. "I can't afford to pay for the hospital."
There also are concerns about the condition of the city's well water.
Most of that water actually started as surface water from the city's watershed - the city has a state permit allowing it to pump 200 million gallons of surface water into the well each year, then pump that water back to the surface during the summer.
A water sample from the well taken on Sunday contained no oocysts.
One resident suggested that wells be used instead of worrying about UV or filtration. Wells wouldn't supply enough water to serve the city, Kee said.
City officials talked about the use Saturday evening of the county's emergency notification system to let people know that use of boiled or bottled water was still necessary.
The system could be used again to inform people when the boil order is lifted, Kee said.
One person in the audience said: "no one contacted me."
Another person shouted "not everyone has house phones."
Councilors Dennis Dorrah and Barbara Johnson didn't attend the meeting.
Tonya Dias made note of Dorrah's absence because he opposed the UV system. She also asked Councilor Roger Coles why he didn't trust the recommendations of staff to move forward with UV treatment.
"I don't believe UV is the total answer ... I'm not totally sold on it," Coles said. "I won't rubber stamp something because staff puts it across my desk."
Crypto is likely to come up again when the councilors hold their regular meeting on Tuesday.