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Barstow water crisis continues

November 20, 2010 | 10:22 pm

The water supplier to the desert city of Barstow continued flushing out its water system late Saturday to rid pipes of the hazardous contaminant perchlorate, which was discovered in the drinking water supply on Thursday.

The flushing process by Golden State Water Co. caused minor flooding in some parts of the Mojave Desert town, and had city officials scrambling to make sure that the municipal sewage system wouldn’t be overwhelmed, said City Councilman Tim Saenz.

Meanwhile, state health officials continued their warning to residents not to use tap water to drink, prepare food or brush their teeth. Four drive-through water distribution centers were set up around town to provide free bottled water to all those in need.

“We have to deal with it. It’s an unfortunate situation," Saenz said as he helped volunteers handing out water at Barstow Community College on Saturday night. “Our priority is the public’s safety and public’s health.’’

Perchlorate, a type of salt derived from perchloric acid, has been found in drinking water in at least 35 states. It can interfere with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland. The thyroid, which releases hormones, helps with proper development in children and helps regulate metabolism.

The contamination prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency Saturday.

According to the governor’s declaration, more than 40,000 customers were without their normal supply of drinking water, and several restaurants, hotels and other businesses had to close because of the contamination.

Officials at Golden State Water Co. still have not told the city when the water supply may be declared safe again, but expect it will be within days, Saenz said.

Most  Barstow residents said they’ve been able to adjust to depending on bottled water, though some expressed doubts about assurances from health officials that the tap water was safe for bathing.

“I have grandchildren and elderly parents I’m taking care of. I’m not sure I want to risk it," said Eben Heffernan, 44, a carpenter from Barstow who drove up in his Ford Bronco at the Barstow college to collect three gallons of bottled water. “Plus, who knows how long this chemical has been in the water. I sure don’t."

Concerns also have been heightened by mixed messages residents are receiving.

Sabrina Ellis, 29, who works in the Barstow Police Department records division, said water company representatives said the tap water was safe for washing dishes -– yet officials at the elementary school her three children attend told students not to wash their hands with the water.

“I had to run out to Wal Mart to buy a bunch of that hand-sanitizer stuff," said Ellis, one of the volunteers handing out water late Saturday night.

--Phil Willon, reporting from Barstow