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MARQUETTE — Marquette city residents may have noticed a line reading “Monitoring Requirements Not Met for Marquette” in an attachment to the city’s 2020 water quality report that was sent out in July.

The document goes on to state that the city did not monitor city drinking water for pesticides during the period of Jan. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2020, and “therefore cannot be sure of the quality of our drinking water during that time.”

That statement sounds concerning, but according to the city’s Director of Municipal Utilities Mark O’Neill, residents should not be alarmed.

O’Neill said the city did monitor for pesticides during the aforementioned period. The state requires pesticides monitoring every three years.

The report goes on to explain, however, that the pesticides sample the city collected in 2020 was “lost in a lab accident,” and the city was never notified.

“Basically, the letter that was sent out was a form letter from the state that we have to follow,” O’Neill said. “The only thing we can add to it is about what happened and what was being done. The verbiage makes it sound terrible.”

O’Neill said the state’s water testing requirements are rigorous, which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to ensuring safe and quality drinking water for residents.

“We’re required to do all kinds of testing,” he said. “The (water filtration) plant is staffed 24/7. Testing is done every hour, every day. There’s weekly tests, biweekly tests, monthly, quarterly, other tests of things you wouldn’t expect to find in a water source like Lake Superior.

“Once every three years is pesticides testing. Metals are once every nine years. They all have different schedules.”

So, what exactly transpired with the most recent pesticides sample?

“We took the pesticides sample toward the end of that (Jan. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2020) time frame,” O’Neill said. “We sent it to the state with the other required testing, and during the process of running those samples, there was an accident in the lab in Lansing, and the (pesticides) test was spoiled.

“We were never contacted. By the time we were notified, it was outside of the time frame that we were required to test. That made it an automatic violation, and there was no way around it even though it wasn’t our fault.”

After receiving notice from the state, the city re-sampled for pesticides on Dec. 28, 2020.

“We resampled, and, as usual, we went back over the last 12 years or so and (pesticides) have never been detected,” O’Neill said. “It’s just not something that you find. It’s something that we’re required to test for. But, because it’s an automatic violation and there’s no way around it, it doesn’t matter. We were required to send that letter within a year (of the incident) to all residents, and we decided to send it out based off of the advice from the state.”

O’Neill said the state didn’t say precisely what caused the lab accident to occur.

“A lady for EGLE (Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) oversees our treatment plant,” he said. “She emailed me and asked ‘Did we collect this (pesticides sample)?’ I looked into it and said ‘Yeah, we sent it in.’ That’s when we found out there was an accident in the lab. They didn’t explain what happened. It could’ve been anything from a spilled sample, to putting in the wrong chemical to a power outage.”

EGLE Surface Water Specialist Robert London, who works out of EGLE’s Bay City district office and is the main regulator for the city, said the city didn’t allow enough time to resample ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

“At the start of each year, we send out a letter to each water system letting them know what they need to sample for in the coming year,” he said. “My understanding is that the city (of Marquette) collected the sample, but not within the time frame they needed to do it. All samples are due by Sept. 30 each year. What had happened was that they collected the sample, something had happened to it in transit, and then they didn’t have enough time to collect the repeat sample for Sept. 30.

“There was then a public notice (the city) was required to issue. They can say they collected on time but due to a lab error, it didn’t count. They’re able to tell the public that to understand what happened.”

O’Neill said the situation was unfortunate due to the alarm it caused city residents, and that the city will test sooner rather than later next time.

“It generated a lot of questions,” he said. “We never really have detected pesticides in our water, which I explained to residents who did give me a call about it. It’s a learning moment for us. From now on, we won’t wait until the end of the time frame. We’ll take it up early.

“It’s unfortunate. We have a really high quality water source, an excellent filtration plant, we provide high quality water and take a lot of pride in that, so (the incident) doesn’t sit well. We have dedicated certified operators on staff 24/7. Some of these tests are done once every three years, and it’s something you don’t ever expect. It’s embarrassing for us and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

To view the city of Marquette’s full 2020 Water Quality Report, visit bit.ly/3BMh17a.

Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is [email protected].

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