Positive E. coli tests rising
BCHD says trend is one reason for property transfer certificates
Since 2005, positive E. coli tests in area wells have risen from less than one percent up to 24 percent, and the Barry County Health Department says that trend is one of the reasons it is pushing a wastewater ordinance amendment.
By January 2015, the department hopes to amend its wastewater ordinance to include a requirement for homeowners to obtain a property transfer certificate, which verifies the adequacy of existing wastewater treatment systems on any given property when it is changing hands.
John Starchman, chairman of the department's board, said it is the responsibility of the department to bring such information to light, and use it to keep people safe.
"The health department is responsible for the health and welfare of the county, and when there's a trend taking us in a direction we don't want to go, we need to do something," he said. "Do we need to wait for someone to die, or do we need to act in advance?"
In 2013, 24.31 percent of well water samples taken in Barry County tested positive for E. coli. That number has been on a steep rise since 2005, when the percentage was less than 1 percent. The 2013 percentage is also higher than the last seven years before combined, as from 2005 to 2012, positive E. coli tests came in at 15.51 percent.
Of the three regions in the county, the Monett region saw a 20.65 percent positive test rate, Cassville same in at 18.09 percent and the lake area was at 10.22 percent.
"The obvious causes of these positive tests are over-the-hill septic systems or houses that have septic systems that don't really work," Starchman said. "If you have a 25-year-old septic tank in your backyard, it is probably leaking into the ground water, and if it gets in the base rock, it can move up to one mile per day because of the topography here in Barry County. In places like Joplin and areas of Kansas, a gallon of water may only move a few feet per day, but because of the land here, a gallon of water moves a mile per day."
Starchman said those who have well water contaminated by E. coli would not know it until they became sick, as E. coli has no distinct taste, smell or other identifying factor. The bacteria is most known for causing gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections or neonatal meningitis, and in worst-case scenarios, can result in death.
Starchman said the health hazard is one reason the department is seeking the ordinance amendment, however, board members would like to do it with the support of the people and of the county commission.
Cherry Warren, presiding commissioner, said he attended the public hearing on the issue in January, and there is a lot of opposition to the amendment.
"I was at that hearing and think they probably better educate people a bit better about what's going on," he said. "The majority of people at that meeting were opposed to it, and we tend to go with what our constituents want. I'd like to see more input from the people, and I think relators play a big role in it, too, because they will be directly involved."
Stone County is the only Missouri county to have implemented the property transfer certificate ordinance, and Starchman said realtors there have not had any issues because it creates a level playing field.
"Our biggest complaints have been from realtors because they say it will keep them from closing a deal," he said. "I think it takes some liability away from them, and they will all play on the same ball field, under the same rules."
Warren said even if the ordinance were amended, he does not think it will solve the E. coli problem.
"It wouldn't solve the problem with E. coli because all it would affect is all the properties sold, and some people treat there wells," he said. "As far as sickness, I haven't seen a lot of problems with it, but I'm sure there are some cases."
Starchman said the amendment would probably not solve the E. coli problem entirely, but it would be a step in the right direction.
"Would it immediately make all well water safe, probably not, but we are hoping to reverse the trend we are seeing with E. coli testing," he said.
Starchman said per the Missouri constitution, the board has the authority to write and pass the ordinance themselves, but that is not how they wish to operate.
"We could do it on our own, but we want to the county to support it," he said. "None of us on the board are fond of larger government, but we're also not fond of the severity of a family coming to us with a family member that has been crippled or has died and asking us why we didn't do anything about it."
Starchman said he would like to pass the amendment as soon as possible through the county commission, but if the situation were to become dire, other steps would likely be taken.
"If there is a death, we probably wouldn't wait," he said.