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Wells near Oklahoma E. coli outbreak test positive

TULSA, Okla. (AP)--Seventeen private water wells have tested positive for E. coli bacteria near a northeastern Oklahoma town where an E. coli outbreak last summer killed one man and sickened hundreds, state officials said Feb. 25.

The Department of Environmental Quality said additional testing is needed to determine whether the bacteria in the wells is the rare E. coli O111 strain involved in the August outbreak.

Health officials have said a restaurant called the Country Cottage was the source of the outbreak in Locust Grove, but Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said this month that it could have been the result of contamination from nearby poultry farms.

The DEQ tested a total of 74 wells in the area in response to Edmondson's comments. Seventeen of them showed E. coli, which is typically associated with human or animal waste.

DEQ spokeswoman Skylar McElhaney said residents with wells that tested positive were advised to disinfect their wells using a household bleach treatment before drinking their water.

Gary Mickelson, spokesman for Tyson Foods Inc., said Feb. 25 that the testing did not identify "any link between bacteria in water wells and poultry."

"Tyson Foods wrote to the DEQ pointing out that their testing of water wells needed to look for the specific rare form of E. coli that actually caused the illness in Locust Grove, and not for harmless bacteria that are found throughout the environment," Mickelson said. "This is particularly important because scientific literature demonstrates that the type of bacteria that caused the Locust Grove outbreak is primarily associated with cattle and not poultry."

The state health department originally said the well of the Country Cottage was an unlikely source for the bacterial outbreak. It later told the attorney general's office that E. coli had been found in the well, but the rare strain that caused the sickness did not turn up in any testing. The source of the contamination inside the well is still being investigated.

Edmondson released a report on Feb. 13 concluding that the well at the Country Cottage "is, and has been, contaminated with poultry waste and associated bacteria, including E. coli."

His report also noted that there are 49 poultry houses within a six-mile radius of Locust Grove that have the capacity to produce 10,000 tons of waste a year. It also states there is insufficient pasture land to dispose of all the waste near the houses.

"We're pleased DEQ and the Oklahoma State Department of Health took this action," Edmondson said in a statement Feb. 25. "While it's premature to draw conclusions as to the source of the contamination from these particular tests, it is imperative that public health precautions be taken."

Edmondson sued 13 Arkansas poultry companies in 2005, claiming that the excessive land application of chicken waste in the 1 million-acre Illinois River watershed could be a danger to public health.

Companies named in that complaint include Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc.

The pollution trial will begin in September.

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