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DEQ PLEDGES MORE RIVER TESTS

State environmental officials, whose current tests of the popular Salt River tubing area can't detect a deadly bacteria that cost a young Phoenix man his leg, say they plan new tests this summer to seek out the bacteria. First, officials say, they will try to determine if it was an isolated incident that claimed Ed Whitehurst's leg or if other tubers have been infected.

"If we find somebody else, then we would want to get somebody out there [testing] as quickly as we could," says Jack Bale, program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Bale stressed that, contrary to earlier statements from DEQ, the agency does monitor the quality of water in the river, where up to 11,000 people a week float on inner tubes. DEQ has a contract with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct regular tests, he noted. "I think we screwed up over here in not communicating properly with you," Bale says. "We do have a long history of monitoring the river and the water quality has been uniformly good." In fact, Bale notes, the tests show the water is "very, very clean."

But Bale admits the tests can't detect aeromonas, the bacteria blamed for eating away the leg of the 33-year-old Whitehurst. The tests reveal only fecal coliform levels, which indicate the general presence of human waste and sewage. Norval Sinclair, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona who has done consulting work for DEQ, says, "You could probably go out there to the river any day and find aeromonas; it's just a question of whether or not the levels are high enough to be dangerous.

"Right now, you can't know for sure, because even if the fecal coliform tests are low, aeromonas could still be there in abundance."

New Times reported July 4 that doctors say the bacteria, found in sewage and stagnant water, infected Whitehurst's leg after the Phoenix waiter shattered his ankle in a tubing accident. They hypothesize the bacteria entered through a break in his skin, spreading rapidly through bone and muscle tissue and literally eating away at the leg in a matter of days. The physicians were forced to amputate the leg before the potentially fatal infection spread to the rest of Whitehurst's body.

A new DEQ report shows that water in the tubing area has been tested four times since October 1989--most recently on June 20. The next regular test is scheduled for today, July 18. All the tests show very low levels of human-waste contamination. The report concludes that "while localized episodic problems associated with poor personal hygiene may occur (in the river), no water quality data are known that indicate a human-waste problem."

Meanwhile, officials of the U.S. Forest Service say they're not convinced Whitehurst's infection came from the river. Pete Libby, recreation and land officer for the forest service, said officials want to review Whitehurst's medical records. "It's obvious there were other opportunities for contamination prior [to] and after the accident," Libby said. "Think about it logically. We've got one instance in how many millions of uses?"

But Whitehurst is fearful that his tragedy was not an isolated incident, and has said he wants comprehensive testing of the river water. He has retained an attorney, but is careful to point out that he has no immediate plans to file suit against the state.

Bale says that based on the latest water tests, he'd feel comfortable tubing in the river. However, he told New Times, which called for bacterial testing in a July 11 editorial, that he plans to huddle with county health officials to determine if there are any reported cases of infections similar to Whitehurst's. He said DEQ also would want to be assured Whitehurst did pick up the bacteria from the river water before it proceeded with further river testing. A comprehensive river test, he says, could cost more than $100,000.

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Darrin Hostetler