In a water crisis, you need public employees

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When you’re a state public health scientist, there’s nothing quite like having a water emergency land in your laboratory during a full-on global pandemic—and on a weekend, too.

That’s exactly what faced members of the Montana Federation of Public Employees last month as they neared capacity in conducting coronavirus tests at the state lab in Helena.

Janel MasonMFPE member Janel Mason

Throughout the spring, state environmental chemists had been pitching in on COVID-19 testing, their schedules shifting and hours stretching into overtime and Saturdays. By mid-June, Montana’s public health lab was steadily approaching its current peak of about 1,300 tests per day. Meanwhile, the state epidemiology section was going full tilt with surveillance testing and contact tracing, especially at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Into the middle of all this came a call for help from the town of West Yellowstone in Gallatin County, a few hours south of the state capital. The driver of a large off-road vehicle had trespassed on land in the town’s watershed, damaging its primary source of drinking water. Local officials were concerned that volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—that is, petroleum-based contaminants like oil or gasoline—may have gotten into the water supply.

So, the state Department of Environmental Quality declared a water emergency and advised everyone in West Yellowstone to consume only bottled water until further testing could be done at the state lab. For residents, businesses and visitors, that meant using only bottled water for brushing teeth, cooking, or even making ice cubes, until the situation was resolved. DEQ ordered restaurants closed. No dishwashers. Not even boiled water would be safe.

Because the coronavirus pandemic is top of mind right now, county officials and local newspapers took the extra step of pointing out to the public that the possible water contamination had nothing to do with COVID-19.

Word of the emergency came to the state lab on Friday night, June 12. West Yellowstone had finished testing for bacteria but didn’t have the capacity to test for VOCs. Normally, that would have to wait for a private lab closed on weekends—meaning no test results, and no drinking water for residents or tourists, for at least four or five days.

Could the state lab help? Would it help?

Well, of course it would. Public service is the mission of public employees.

The job fell to Janel Mason, an environmental scientist and member of the Federation of Public Health and Human Services who usually does regulatory testing for agricultural pesticides and herbicides. As an organic chemist, she is cross-trained in VOC testing. Mason was scheduled to work Saturday, lending a hand at the state public health lab, receiving and logging in samples from people all over Montana who needed to know if they had COVID-19. Samples pour into the lab via U.S. mail, courier and delivery service.

“The lab downstairs was getting hammered,” Mason says, “so we went down to help them.”

After the emergency water sample arrived from West Yellowstone at around 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 13, Mason carried it upstairs to her regular lab, where she first took steps for quality control and then began running the three-hour VOC test. When it was done, Jill Cohenour, president of the Federation of Public Health and Human Services, a state senator and also a state chemist, verified the result. She sent a report to DEQ and gave West Yellowstone the all clear.

It took less than a day. “When the guy came and dropped off the sample, he was pretty anxious to get it done because they’re a tourist town,” Mason says. “They had finally just opened up again, and they wanted to get it resolved as quickly as possible.”

Like public employees everywhere, Cohenour and Mason take pride in their work. “We respond to emergencies when called upon, using our expertise and training,” Cohenour notes.

Gallatin County officials wasted no time in thanking them.

“Your team’s quick response and willingness to go the extra mile allowed the town of West Yellowstone to get its public water system back up and running,” the county health officer wrote in a letter on Monday. “Without their assistance, West Yellowstone’s system would still be under a no-use order today. Getting them back up and running Saturday afternoon was a huge benefit to a community that has already been adversely impacted by COVID-19. In these difficult times, I wanted to make sure to say thank you and ‘job well done.’ This is good government.”

“It’s definitely a plus to know that your work is being recognized and appreciated,” Mason says. “It does feel rewarding. I feel like I’m helping out in the public health lab, and they’ve been putting in a lot of work hours down there. And frankly, I’m glad that I’ve still had a job through all this.”

Cohenour urges fellow AFT members nationwide to call their U.S. senators and demand emergency funding for states and localities through the House-passed HEROES Act. The legislation would sustain federal aid to protect essential public services and reopen the economy.

“If we don’t have those federal funds,” Cohenour says, “we’re not going to be able to keep our jobs and provide that expertise. And as a nation, if public employees aren’t here to respond to these emergencies and assist people in their time of need, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. Public employees do the work that matters.”

[Annette Licitra]