E. Coli Outbreak Probe Focuses On Water Wells

Wednesday, February 18th 2009, 5:28 pm
By: News On 6

By Jeffrey Smith, The News On 6

LOCUST GROVE, OK -- The effort continues to discover the cause of last summer's deadly E. coli outbreak.  The Oklahoma Attorney General says there's definitive proof that E. coli bacteria lived in the water well at a Locust Grove restaurant.  And, he says there's a strong case that the outbreak originated from chicken waste.

What caused the E. coli outbreak last summer at the Country Cottage Restaurant?  One state agency responsible for protecting your health says the origins may never be known.

It was the largest outbreak of its kind in U.S. history.  The E. coli outbreak linked to the popular Locust Grove restaurant killed one man, and sickened more than 340 others.  More than 70 people were hospitalized.  Some children spent more than a month in intensive care.      

Almost immediately, attention swirled around the restaurant's private water well.  Country Cottage told the health department they used well water in August when the town's main water supply dried up.  The well was used for a total of four hours over two days.  All of the victims who got sick ate at the restaurant around that time. 

The Oklahoma Department of Health repeatedly tested the well water.  They reported the water tested positive for bacteria, but not for E. coli.     

And where the E. coli came from precisely, may never be known.

"Nobody asked the health department whether their lack of finding it, meant it wasn't there," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

The Department of Environment Quality came up with different results.  Their test results say definitively that E. coli was in the well.    The Office of the Attorney General did its own tests and the results back up the DEQ.

Attorney General Drew Edmonson is taking it a step further, suggesting an origin for the E. coli, which the Oklahoma Health Department would not do.

"We took great pains to rule out human contamination by checking the septic tanks and the sewers that were in the vicinity. And, the other possibility is cattle. There are no cattle feed lots in the area. And, that pretty much narrows it down to the poultry operations. And we think that's a pretty strong circumstantial evidence case," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

The outbreak ended in September, but Edmonson says there are dozens of poultry houses in the area that produce tons of waste. 

State poultry workers say Edmondson's office is spreading panic.

"We're absolutely blown away by those allegations. There are no facts to back up the fear that he has portrayed, and put into the heads of northeast Oklahomans," said Jackie Cunningham with the Poultry Community Council.

The DEQ is offering to test any local well, for free, and dozens of homeowners are taking them up on the offer.   The Department of Environmental Quality is testing 68 private wells in the Locust Grove area.

Those homeowners voluntarily signed up to have their well water examined.  They say they've relied on their water wells for decades, and they've never fallen ill because of their drinking water.  They told The News On 6 they believe the E. coli outbreak was a tragic, but isolated case.

Attorney General Edmondson has a contentious relationship with the poultry industry.  He sued more than a dozen Arkansas chicken farms, accusing them of polluting the Illinois River watershed.  That case is scheduled to begin in September.