Lexington SC: Boil Alert Issued

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Boil alert issued for Lexington water Glitch in computer might have allowed bacteria into system

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- By TIM FLACH Staff Writer -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lexington residents will find out today if they can go to area restaurants for lunch and turn on their faucets without worry. A pre-dawn computer glitch Tuesday lowered town water levels to the point where officials fear bacterial contamination in lines serving 3,500 users.

Tests Tuesday found no contamination. More tests today could signal the problem is cleared up. But state officials said a health warning may remain in effect until Thursday.

The problem left neighborhoods in and around the town of Lexington boiling tap water, buying bottled water or relying on bottled drinks to get through the day.

Health inspectors contacted restaurants during their lunch rush and told them water used to wash dishes and supply drink dispensers could be contaminated. But closings were voluntary. Some restaurants remained open with limited menus.

Ted Stambolitis, owner of the Flight Deck restaurant, got word of the problem in the midst of his busy lunch trade.

He turned away waiting customers and got bottled drinks to serve those already seated before closing for the day.

"It's a pretty big hit," he said. "It's pretty upsetting."

Town officials discovered the problem about three hours after it happened, when residents called to complain about low water pressure.

By late morning, town officials asked the media to get out the warning.

The problem affected virtually all of the town and about a two-mile circumference around it in central Lexington County.

Homeowners in four subdivisions on the eastern side of the town -- Corley Woods, Laurel Wood, Tall Pines and Woodcreek -- escaped the problem, because their water comes from lines not affected.

Living with the threat of contaminated water was a hassle for some homeowners.

Kimberly Campbell rushed from work to replace formula she sent with her infant to a day-care center. Campbell made her child's food with water from her kitchen a few hours before the problem was discovered. Her son seems fine, but the worry "was a horrible feeling," she said. She also bought bottled water for her family.

Others shrugged off the inconvenience.

Susan Orrey, an assistant at an employment staffing agency, said she got through the day by drinking soda instead of water.

Signs warning against sipping from water fountains were posted in Lexington County's administration building in downtown Lexington.

Mayor Dan Breazeale called the town "a victim of technology."

"When you have a computer system with all these checks and balances in it and it fails, it's an uneasy feeling," he said.

Town officials called the problem inexplicable. "We don't know why things didn't work," Town Administrator L.C. Greene said.

What happened, they said, is that a computer that adjusts water flow with usage crashed about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. So it told the supply plant that town water lines remained full even as early morning usage drew down levels.

An alarm that was supposed to notify town utility workers of the computer bug also failed, Greene said. The setup had worked repeatedly in previous tests, he said.

Restaurateur Max Schleuter said he never dreamed something like this could happen.

"You take your water for granted," he said.

Schleuter chose to keep his Carolina Bagel delicatessen open, serving bottled drinks after turning off coffee, soda and ice machines.

"People were pretty understanding," he said. "I can get through today without any pain, but if it goes on, it will hurt. I hope we get the green light to open Wednesday."

The Flight Deck's Stambolitis wants Town Hall to pay for lost business if the shutdown lasts less than two days. He said business insurance typically doesn't cover a business interruption of less than 48 hours.

"We'll have to see what kind of situation we have," the mayor said.

Stambolitis said the problem is another black eye for the area. It follows industrial poisoning of waterways and homeowners' wells in nearby Red Bank during the past two years.

"There could be repercussions, Stambolitis said. "People will be apprehensive about coming to this area."

Campbell complained that Town Hall spread word of the problem too slowly.

For now, town officials are adding extra safeguards to alert them of problems with the water supply.

"We'd rather be safe than sorry again," Breazeale said.

-- Freedom (freedom2k@yahoo.com), April 14, 2000

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