Experts: Cleveland Drinking Water Safe From Medical Waste Scare

Wednesday, March 18th 2015, 7:13 pm
By: Tess Maune

Concerns of water safety arose after medical waste was found dumped in parts of Pawnee County's Arkansas River.

Some of Cleveland's drinking water is coming from a creek that Arkansas River sometimes spills into.

But the city, the state health department and the Department of Environmental Quality all tell News On 6 there's no need for panic.

All of Cleveland's drinking water comes to the city's water treatment facility before it hits anyone's faucet. The supervisor there and the DEQ say the water is safe to drink.

Concern spiked after several biohazard containers were found on the banks of the Arkansas River sealed up tight. But others, like one we found dangling from a piece of driftwood, were busted open, leaving dirty medical supplies, needles, syringes and vials of blood to wash down river.

3/18/2015 Related Story: Man Arrested For Medical Waste Theft Person Of Interest In Arkansas River Dumping

A fisherman near Ralston initially found several of the containers over the weekend and authorities began investigating. The contents were marked with information leading back to St. John Medical Center in Tulsa.

“It just makes me sick that somebody would do something like this,” Blackburn resident Elicia Leon said.

Elicia Leon and her family, who live within walking distance of the river in Blackburn, say the thought of dirty medical supplies in the water makes them hesitant to even go near the shore.

“There's no way I'm gonna do that this summer until I know this river is clean and there's nothing out there that's gonna endanger my family or myself,” Lee Leon said.

The family says it doesn't have plans to eat fish from the river anytime soon either.

But the DEQ says there should not be concern over consuming fish from that area of the Arkansas River.

“If the medical waste were to remain in the river, long term, over a long period of time, there could be impact to fish,” DEQ spokesperson Skylar McElhaney said. “We don't believe there is going to be impact to the fish since the medical waste wasn't in the river over a long period of time.”

3/18/2015 Related Story: Medical Biohazard Containers Found Trashed In Arkansas River Near Ralston

The DEQ and the state health department say the biggest concern would be getting stuck with a dirty needle. But even then, the state's HIV/STD service director says the risk is low.

“They've never documented a case of transmission from exposure to a needle that was left in a public setting,” said Oklahoma Department of Health HIV/STD director Jan Fox said. “That doesn't mean there would be no risk, but it's never been documented, so we believe the risk is really small.”

The state says the chance of contracting blood borne pathogens is also small because any blood that may have ended up in the water has diluted and dispersed across miles of the river.

“It would have to be an exposure to... generally, it's to visible blood that would be on a mucus membrane or that would be through a cut or a needle stick,” Fox said.

Now, for the first time in a long time, there's a steady stream of water pumping into Cleveland Lake.

The lake is the city's water source, but it has been so low because of the multi-year drought, the treatment plant has tapped into Ranch Creek down the way.

“[It] feeds into here and we treat it with chemical,” Cleveland Water Supervisor Gaylen Vaughn said.

And while the river sometimes spills into the creek in a flood situation, Vaughn says it's been a while since that's happened.

“At this point, the mouth of Ranch Creek is closed off from the river itself,” Vaughn said.

Reporter: “So the Arkansas River water is not touching Ranch Creek in any way?"
Vaughn: “At this point, no. … Our water, we're producing good water; it's not bad water.”
Tess: “Not a danger?”
Vaughn: “No.”

The only danger in Cleveland, Vaughn says, is the lack of rain.

“It's not related to medical waste, but we do definitely have a water problem,” Vaughn said. “We're about out of water.”

The DEQ had an environmental cleanup crew on the river on Tuesday. They picked up medical waste that was scattered along the banks. The DEQ says it is likely a crew will be back in the next several days to make sure no dirty medical supplies were missed near Cleveland or the other spot up the river near Ralston.

Pawnee County Sheriff Mike Waters believes someone intentionally dumped the containers near the Belford Bridge in Ralston, north of Pawnee, and more at the Highway 99 bridge in Cleveland.

Some relief set in across the county after what appears to be a lead in the case.

About 4 a.m. on Tuesday, just a couple of days after the fisherman found the containers, St. John Medical Center security detained 27-year-old Ralston resident Garrett Gibson. A Tulsa police report says Gibson, who has a long criminal record, was posing as a janitor, wandering the hospital halls and stealing containers of biohazardous waste.

Waters is calling Gibson a person of interest in the Arkansas River dumping and after interviewing him, the sheriff said it's highly possible Gibson is connected.