Bacteria affects 18 people in December at the Sturgeon Bay restaurant
By Deb Fitzgerald
For The News-Chronicle
The well water at the Mill Supper Club in Sturgeon Bay is suspected to have caused the illnesses of eight people who tested positive for campylobacter, a common bacterial cause of diarrheal sickness.
As a result of the illnesses and subsequent state and county investigations, Don and Shelly Petersilka, owners of the restaurant at the northern intersection of States 42 and 57, have opted to replace their pre-1950s well with a new one.
“I’m extremely sorry people got sick,” Don said. “Nobody feels worse about it than Shelly and I do.” The events leading to the decision to drill a new well began on four different nights in December, when 18 people at four separate dining parties became ill. Only 13 of those people had stool samples examined by a doctor. Of those who were tested, eight were positive for campylobacter, according to Rhonda Kolberg, director of the Door County Public Health Department.
All 18 people have recovered. “They took antibiotics and were fine,” Kolberg said.
Individual cases of campylobacter are caused by handling or eating raw or undercooked poultry. Larger outbreaks are caused by drinking unpasteurized milk or water that has become contaminated by the infected feces of cows, or wild birds, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In this case, both the county and state agencies suspected the well water after Steve Bell, state sanitarian, inspected the restaurant.
Bell, who has been inspecting Door County restaurants for the state for the past eight years, characterized the Mill as “one of the oldest kitchens in the county, and always the cleanest.”
When he inspected the restaurant after first being alerted by Kolberg, he found no unsafe practices, and no concerns with food or the handling of food.
“I notified the Department of Natural Resources and said, ‘My hunch is water,'” Bell said.
The first water test results weren’t returned until Dec. 18. But before that, with the illnesses being reported and a suspicion of well contamination, Bell asked the Petersilkas to go on a voluntary boil notice starting Dec. 17, which they did.
“It was voluntary because the water was only suspected,” Bell said. “We can’t do a mandatory (boil notice) until there’s something more definitive than a hunch.”
The boil notice meant the Mill would not use the well water, and would post signs in the restrooms warning customers not to drink the water.
“Steve (Bell) came in and told us what we had to do, and we immediately did it,” Petersilka said. “We’re not using any of our well water. We’re buying water, soda and ice, and doing whatever the state and local officials tell us to do.”
After the boil notice went into effect, no other cases of campylobacter were reported, Kolberg said.
“The outbreak seems to have dissipated,” Kolberg said.
Meanwhile, both the county and state conducted tests on the well water. Both sets of tests revealed coloform and E.coli in the water, according to Kolberg and Laurel Braatz, DNR drinking water and ground water specialist for Door County.
“The well did test positive both for coliform and E.coli,” Braatz said. “With E.coli, it’s telling you there is some fecal matter in the water. Those are basically the only results we do have on that well.”
The tests showing fecal matter in the water are only indicators and don’t positively mean there’s something in the water that will make a person ill, Braatz said.
In addition, water moves quickly through Door County’s highly fractured, primarily dolomite aquifer. This means that tests taken today might not reflect the state of the water on the day the diners became ill, Kolberg said.
“You can link these things epidemiologically, but you can’t say definitely this is what happened,” Kolberg said. “You have to look at what makes the most sense.”
What made the most sense to the Petersilkas was to drill a new well.
“It worries the hell out of you,” Petersilka said. “So if we’re having a problem, why not just drill it and be done with it.”
Drilling a new well also made sense to the DNR’s Braatz for a number of reasons: The existing well is “very old,” or at least pre-1950s, and likely shallow with casing at 40 feet. Standards for new wells require casing depth of either 100 feet or 170 feet, Braatz said.
In addition, the Mill well casing might have been cracked, making it highly susceptible to contamination, particularly during heavy rains like those experienced in November, Braatz said. “The newer wells hopefully provide more protection from contaminants,” Braatz said.
All restaurants in Door County are mandated by the state to perform quarterly water testing. Braatz has been responsible for this monitoring for the past seven years. According to DNR records, the Mill Supper Club received an unsafe quarterly water test in 1994, Braatz said. At that time, there was an outbreak of illness and a boil water notice was issued.
“I don’t know if that ever became an issue in 1994, because if there’s not a large group, you often can miss these situations,” Braatz said. “This was an ideal case because there were big Christmas parties with large groups together. It’s easier than if you just have random couples passing through, especially with people’s immune systems being different and pathogens not the same in each glass of water.”
Unsafe water tests and boil water notices are not uncommon in Door County restaurants, Braatz said. For example, since July 2004, Braatz said she has issued 10 boil water notices in Door County; the year before, she issued 20.
“But that was a dry year, so (the notices) may have been down,” Braatz said, since heavy rains wash contaminants into the groundwater more quickly.
But even though bad water tests are relatively common in Door County restaurants, outbreaks of illness due to unsafe restaurant water are more descriptive of Door County’s past than characteristic of its present.
“The last major outbreaks were in the late 1980s, and the majority was in Ephraim,” Braatz said.
Kolberg said there haven’t been any outbreaks of illness related to restaurant water during her 14-year tenure with the county health department.
“Not in a restaurant has this happened,” Kolberg said. “The beach is the only place where it’s happened.”
Kolberg was referring to July 2002, when 63 people became ill after swimming at Nicolet Bay Beach in Peninsula State Park. As near as could be determined, fecal matter, assisted by environmental factors, caused the illnesses, according to the final report issued in 2004 by the Door County Board of Health.
The acute gastrointestinal illness outbreak of 2002 caused a beach to be closed for the first time ever in Door County. It also kicked off an aggressive, countywide beach monitoring and source identification program.