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Lawsuit filed as Alamosa "flush" continues

ALAMOSA — The "big flush" continues today, as this city's water system is scoured with heavily chlorinated water in an attempt to kill off salmonella bacteria.

The city's 10,000 residents have been told they may not use tap water for anything other than flushing toilets this week because it has been made toxic to humans by the addition of 25 parts of chlorine per million parts of water. Normally, tap water contains about 1 or 2 parts of chlorine per million parts of water as a sanitizer.

Gary Soldano, with the Pueblo office of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said crews are working around the clock — in two 12-hour shifts — to track the spread of chlorine levels and any discharges.

Some 251 residents have been treated for salmonella infection, 10 of whom were hospitalized. Salmonella, can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and death in extreme cases. One boy was flown to Children's Hospital in Aurora, where he was treated for several days and released. His family announced today it is filing a lawsuit against the city for a minimum of $150,000 in damages.

Medical personnel at the hospital identified the strain of salmonella as typhimurium, which epidemiologists say is the most frequent strain found in outbreaks. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease specialist at the CU Health Sciences Center, said the identification of the strain doesn't help identify the source of the outbreak.

"Unfortunately, it could come from anywhere," she said. "In general, we see it in eggs and uncooked poultry. Chickens harbor it."

A web posting by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the department investigated three outbreaks of salmonella typhimurium, which were traced to dairy farms.

Alamosa's water comes from a deep aquifer, so deep that the water isn't treated before it's distributed to consumers.

Jackie Flynn, 55, has nine grandchildren, and two of them had been really sick, including 2-month-old Julio and 2½-year-old Mariah.

Today, Flynn spent time flying a kite with her grandson David Trujillo, 11, who, like all the other kids in Alamosa, is out of school.

"This is a really scary situation for everybody," she said. "I'm afraid to use the water for anything."

Her part of town isn't in the first area to be flushed, but she has stopped running the water as a precaution.

"They should have done something about our water a long time ago to make sure this didn't happen," she added.

Flynn bought solar showers for her family. For $9, she got a big plastic bag you can hang up and shower under. They are designed to heat the water via the sun, but she's been heating it on the stove.

Roughly 10,000 gallons of clean water is being handed out each day, from bulk truck trailers as well as bottled water.

City officials hope to kill the bacteria with the high concentration of chlorine, a process that could take the rest of the week. The city has roughly 3,000 water taps, all of which must be purged. Some concern has been voiced about the city's older pipes withstanding the high pressure of the flush.

With chlorine at 25 ppm, the water can not be used for washing. Officials hope that the chlorine additive drops to about 10 ppm in a few days, allowing residents to bathe and shower. It will take the better part of a week before residents can drink the water, officials said.

The city's giant water tower was filled at 1:30 a.m. today with 500,000 gallons of the heavily chlorinated water. However, the flushing process seemed to be proceeding slowly.

Gary Halbersleven, a technician with the state health department who is involved with the flushing, said: "This is new territory. Nothing like this has been done since 1965 in Riverside, Calif. It's sort of exciting."

In addition to the city's schools, many businesses also have been closed.

Ignacio Martinez, manager and owner of the Best Western Alamosa Inn, said his business is down 60 percent.

He added that the only hotel not hurt is the Comfort Inn — where the owner has his own well.

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