Mayor: Water company, health authority over-optimistic in handling crisis

Saaremaa Municipal Council elected Mikk Tuisk new mayor of the municipality on Friday. August 26, 2022.
Saaremaa Municipal Council elected Mikk Tuisk new mayor of the municipality on Friday. August 26, 2022. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

Saaremaa rural municipality mayor, Mikk Tuisk, said both the Kuressaare water company and the health authority were overly optimistic about the water crisis in Kuressaare, preventing the municipality from taking crisis management measures promptly.

Friday, the Estonian Health Board released a summary (link in Estonian) of how the Kuressaare water contamination crisis was handled, stating that the Kuressaare water company failed to notify the board when pipes ruptured, placing drinking water at risk of contamination.

Tuisk said that Kuressaare Veevärk was confident there was no contamination and hence the notification was not issued promptly.

"This decision was based solely on the premise that it is unreasonable to assume anything can flow in the opposite direction if so much water is flowing out of the pipe. However, when we began investigating why the pipeline's pressure had dropped so abruptly, it became evident that there had been cross-contamination. Nevertheless, highly trained engineers argued that the contamination could not have originated from this location, which is why the water company did not report it," Tuisk explained.

"This is a learning curve. If there is an incident involving water, samples must be taken in the vicinity of the incident. In any case, we will implement this measure here in Saaremaa," he said.

Tuisk explained that in this particular case, the replacement of the pipe was carried out using a closed procedure, i.e. without digging up the ground. "To ensure that such cross-contamination does not happen in the future, we must excavate around these areas or disconnect water mains at such crossings. In fact, the contractor is responsible for ensuring that these crossings are separated and safe," Tuisk said.

He said that at the beginning of the crisis there was confusion about who should take the lead in resolving it.

"All parties who have gathered at this table have made mistakes. This is a crisis from which we must learn how to do things better in the future."

Tuisk said that the real challenge for the municipality was the Kuressaare water company and the health authority's overly optimistic prognosis. "We were informed that the problem would be resolved by tomorrow or the following day, so no additional measures were taken, such as acquiring clean water containers, etc. Here is where we should have actually over-reacted. For instance, I did not come back from my vacation, because I was told that it would be resolved in two days," he said.

Tuisk said no one has yet been suspended due to liability. "It is too early for anyone to assume responsibility. We are waiting for the results of the state supervision procedure, the audit we commissioned, the claims for damages against the water company and we have to determine whether the contractor is at fault," he said.

Tuisk said on Friday that all of Kuressaare's water samples returned negative results this week, and Kuressaare Veevärk will continue to sample and monitor the purity of the city's drinking water.

On June 12, Tuisk will meet with Health Board representatives.

At the end of the first week of May, people in Kuressaare started getting sick with pneumonia en masse, and on Tuesday last week the health authority confirmed that the drinking water there was contaminated with Escherichia coli.


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Kristina Kersa

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