Parents complain after bacteria found in drinking water at McSwain Elementary School in Merced

McSwain Elementary School was forced to cut off access to its drinking water after an elevated level of total coliform bacteria was found in one of the school’s water storage tanks during a routine test Tuesday.

According to the Merced County Department of Public Health, the school was issued a bottled water order immediately after receiving notification that total coliform bacteria was detected during a drinking water source assessment performed by a state-certified laboratory.

Total coliform is a natural bacteria found in the environment and in the human body. Although total coliform bacteria are unlikely to cause illness, their presence in groundwater indicates disease-causing organisms could be in the water system, according to Vicki Jones, supervising environmental health specialist with the health department’s Division of Environmental Health.

The bottled water order was removed Friday after the storage tank was chlorinated, flushed and the drinking water retested.

Jones clarified the bacteria found in the groundwater was not E. coli, as some parents of students at McSwain Elementary were alleging.

While the school district worked to resolve the water contamination issue, parents were not informed of the unsafe water.

McSwain Union Elementary School District Superintendent Stan Mollart said he takes full responsibility for not notifying parents.

“That was an oversight on my part,” said Mollart. “I’ll take the blame for that. We’re putting out a notification today (Friday) to explain to parents what happened. We should have given them a notice, but we didn’t, so that’s on us. It won’t happen again.”

Mollart maintained that students had easy access to water by making bottled water available at the school office. However, one parent, who declined to give her name, said her two children complained about not receiving enough water at school.

“My daughter basically came home dying of thirst,” the parent said. “The school would have groups of kids showing up to the office all at once for water, so after a while kids were only getting those itty-bitty Dixie paper cups, and sometimes they had to share.”

The parent said she visited the school to learn what was happening, but was never given a clear answer. “It’s like the school is keeping a dirty little secret,” said the parent. “I don’t understand why we were not notified.”

According to Jones, schools are required to submit two water samples each month. If either sample shows signs of contamination, six additional samples are required after the water has been chlorinated and flushed.

It’s not the first time McSwain Elementary School has had a problem with its water supply. According to Mollart, the school had to go through a similar process last year, but the district is working with the county’s Division of Environmental Health to avoid additional contamination.

According to Jones, a new process in which the water supply will be routinely flushed in order to prevent bacterial growth within storage tanks will be implemented by the school. An effective date for that process was unavailable Friday.