What do you get when you cross a pressurized sewer line with a slightly-less-pressurized water supply line? Well, in the immortal words of the Dave Matthews Band: “Don’t drink the water.”

That was the message from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to Missoula customers of Mountain Water early this week after a contractor accidentally connected a sewer line from a private residence to the water supply line. The mixup, which happened Friday, resulted in a cross contamination of sewage and drinking water and put the city on a boil-your-water alert that continued as of Wednesday.

But who should boil what water and where? According to the message scrolling across Missoulians’ TV screens Monday night, the “boil order” was in effect west of Eaton Street, north of Mount Street and south of 3rd Street. Residents south of the river were considered to be in the “health advisory” area where boiling was recommended.

Some supermarkets in the contamination area had sold out of bottled water by Monday night, and by Tuesday the warning had pretty much been forgotten.

“Water sales have been amazing,” said one southside supermarket manager. “But our standard operations haven’t changed or anything.”

When asked if the water that mists the produce (to say nothing of unsuspecting shoppers who happen to be browsing the rutabagas) came from the same water supply as the suspected contamination, the manager replied, “That’s a really good question.”

Another store manager claimed all of the water used in his store was on a filtration system and was therefore safe.

Still, the question begs another: Why weren’t restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses contacted and warned that their water could be contaminated?

We don’t know because officials at the Missoula County Health department didn’t return this newspaper’s calls on Tuesday before presstime, nor did spokespersons from Missoula’s two hospitals. An emergency room official told the Independent Tuesday evening, “You know, I don’t know anything about it.” Another said she didn’t know if the health department was working with the hospital to monitor potential illnesses.

So it’s no wonder that area businesses weren’t overly concerned about the warning. If health department officials didn’t deem the situation serious enough to recommend extra precautions, why should they?

At presstime, Mountain Water and DEQ officials did not yet have the results of tests done to determine the extent of the contamination. But one thing’s for sure: the next time sewage ends up in the city’s drinking water supply, health officials could do a better job of communicating the extent of the threat.

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