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Locals suspect that it was just kids juiced on a few beers who breached the security of the Malta municipal water supply sometime this weekend, but consequences are far-reaching and expensive.

Because the city cannot be certain that its water supply wasn’t contaminated, officials advised residents, businesses and institutions not to use city water, and it’s not certain when the city supply will be cleared.

Shelley Nolan of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said that preliminary tests results may be available as soon as this evening, but final results are a week away.

The city will not be able to use water from its two tanks until that is complete, but the city may be able to supply safe water from wells sooner.

Nolan said she has given permission for the city to flush tank water from its municipal pipes and then from residential pipes throughout the city of 1,980 people. Once that is complete, the city may be able to pipe in water from its wells.

Although the well water is treated and is safe for general consumption, Nolan said, the DEQ still cautions against using it for infants and others with health risks until the final tests on the tanks are complete.

City Public Works Director John Demarais said the city has four water wells that can pump about 600 gallons a minute. He has only one well on line now.

At midafternoon Monday, Demarais said he was still awaiting the official go-ahead to begin flushing the pipes.

“We’re under DEQ control now,” he said.

The DEQ is testing the water for chemical, biological and radiological contamination, while the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office investigates the trespass. The FBI has also been notified.

Schools were closed Monday and will remain closed today for Malta’s 550-strong student body. Phillips County Hospital and Family Health Clinic hauled water from Havre and from out-of-town wells.

Some restaurants closed, and local stores had a run on bottled water.

“I told my customers real men don’t put water in their whiskey anyway,” laughed David Ware, owner of the Stockman Bar and Steakhouse, making the best of the situation.

He closed the restaurant Sunday because he couldn’t use city water to wash dishes or rinse vegetables. But he kept the bar open.

The steakhouse planned to offer food again before the water supply was cleared but probably would be limited to food like burgers and fries that can be served in baskets.

“I lost a day’s revenue,” he said. “All the restaurants had to shut down. The cooks and waitress lost paychecks. There are perishable foods that only last a few days. We’ll lose some of those, too.”

The trouble started Sunday morning when a breach of the fence surrounding the Hi-Line city’s two tanks — one contains 400,000 gallons of water, the other 176,000 gallons — was discovered, Demarais said.

In her initial report, Nolan said she was informed that the fence had been cut, but law enforcement did not confirm that.

Phillips County Undersheriff Scott Moran said a ladder propped up against the fence showed where the intruder or intruders went over. He said physical evidence was collected at the scene, but “there is no physical evidence they put anything in the tanks.”

There was no visible damage, and there are no suspects.

“All the indications are that what it was was kids,” he said.

But the city has DEQ protocols it must follow.

The DEQ ordered the city to isolate the tanks from its water system and arrangements were made to collect samples Monday morning and to drive them to Helena for testing immediately. The DEQ then e-mailed public notices that contained the “do not use” order to Demarais.

Demarais said he issued an announcement Sunday afternoon. It recommended against “drinking, bathing, boiling, etc.”

The advisory against boiling was “because it is not known if chemicals are present in the drinking water.”

“Chemicals will volatize in a gas vapor when boiled or concentrate when boiling the water and can be toxic in certain situations,” he said.

Nolan said that testing would rule out biological contaminants such as E. coli or chemical agents such as gasoline, herbicides or pesticides. Radiological contamination is “extremely unlikely,” but a two-hour test at a lab in Casper, Wyo., will confirm that, she said

While city water remains suspect, residents can obtain safe water at the city shop, Demarais said.

Almost as soon as the announcement went out over the radio, people rushed to store to buy bottled water.

“We ran out in a couple of hours,” an Albertsons employee said Monday. “We have water coming in today. It should be all taken care of.”

At the hospital, administrator Ward Van Wichen said the facility was functioning with safe water on hand and water hauled in from outside the city.

“We’re doing OK,” he said. “We do have a backup plan. If it continues, we can bring in some tanks.”

Monday was a perfect spring holiday for Malta’s youngest contingent.

Schools couldn’t open without means for children to wash hands or slurp from the drinking fountains and without some way for the cafeteria to function absent tap water.

School Superintendent Kris Kuehn said that, after an all-staff meeting at 8:30 a.m. today, students will get an unscheduled PIR day. Classes will resume Wednesday with or without city water, he said.

Plans are being made to cope. Students will not have to make up the extra days off because of contingencies in state law for unforeseen emergencies.

Server Sam Kindle at the Hitchin’ Post café said she didn’t hear about the problem until Monday morning, but she and the owner scrambled to meet the challenge.

“The owner and I hauled in water,” she said. “We live in the country, you see. We didn’t have to close.”

They brought in 20 gallons on the first trip, and another 10 gallons came in later.

Contact Lorna Thackeray at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com or 657-1314.

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