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Foul culprits remain at large
Hi-tech sleuths fail to solve environmental mysteries

They are armed with some of the most sophisticated technology modern man has ever invented.

Devices that sniff the air for the slightest signs of toxins. Computers that meticulously monitor air and water movements to trace pollutants from one location to another. DNA analysis that can trace the source of contaminations to specific animals.But despite an arsenal of high-tech weapons, the small army of state and federal environmental sleuths, health department officials, university researchers and lawmen are facing up to one sobering reality: Environmental mysteries can be tough cases to crack.

"It is a mystery we're still trying to solve. But the truth is, we may never find out what caused it," said Carol Sisco, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, referring to the foul stench that plagued northern Salt Lake County and southern Davis County for about two weeks in March.

The stench is one of three mysteries that have baffled environmental detectives in recent months.

In central Utah, water quality officials have been unable to pinpoint the source of bacteria found in more than two dozen wells. They know that the presence of E. Coli bacteria means contamination by feces, but they don't know what animal is responsible, how it got into the wells or where it started.

Also, in Salt Lake, Davis and Cache counties, investigators are probing a rash of mysterious cases where feces has been splattered over houses, cars and businesses. They don't know what kind of critter is responsible, whether it be human pranksters or big birds. Or both.

The Salt Lake City-County Health Department is cur- rently running DNA tests on the flying poop to determine what exactly it is. Capt. Lee Smith of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office says the investigation is in slow motion until he gets those test results.

"The preliminary analysis told us there is E. Coli bacteria present," Smith said. "Until we know if it is human, animal or bird we are stuck at that point. The second mystery is, how in the world is it being delivered? It it being propelled somehow from the ground or is it coming from the sky?"

He wouldn't be surprised if some of the incidents are attributed to flocks of birds. There have been a lot of pelicans flying over the area, and Utah pelicans are, after all, very big birds.

Smith also suspects there is a human element to it. He noted that after Taylorsville posted a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible, the incidents in Salt Lake County stopped. But then they reappeared in Davis and Cache counties.

The investigation, which has also involved investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency and local health department, has ruled out accidental discharge of waste from aircraft.

Not only have incidents been reported outside the commercial airline flight path, but "the splatter pattern and volume do not support that theory."

Smith says it's also possible the splatters, at least in many cases, have always happened, but that people didn't notice them until all the media publicity. He recited a recent incident where deputies, firemen, health department investigators and two television camera crews were crowded around a house looking at a splatter.

"It was obviously seagull poop," Smith said, "and it's been falling on houses since they were first built in this valley. A lot of people are suddenly noticing things that have been there forever, thinking somehow they are involved in a great mystery.

"But we have to remember this is not beyond boundaries of what Mother Nature can produce."

DEQ investigators were facing a similar dilemma when they found E. Coli bacteria in 300-foot-deep culinary wells in rural Beaver County. There was suspicion the bacteria was coming from a large commercial hog farm or from local irrigation canals. But DNA tests similar to those used in criminal cases ruled out those possibilities.

They also looked at levels of bacteria concentrations at many different locations, trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination. They came up with nothing that would finger the culprit. They are not even sure what strain of bacteria they are dealing with.

DEQ has now brought in researchers from the University of Utah to take a closer look at the wells. In the meantime, the wells have been chlorinated to kill the bacteria. Additional tests will be conducted at the end of June to ensure the organisms don't return.

So where did the bacteria come from? Dennis Frederick, ground water section manager for the Utah Division of Water Quality, doesn't know and said it really doesn't matter now that the bacteria problem has been cured.

The irony, he said, is that after all the high-tech wizardry expended on trying to find the source of the contamination, there is a strong possibility the wells -- in fact, all underground wells everywhere -- become contaminated at one point or another.

"Bacteria in rural wells is not an unusual thing," he said, adding various water associations issue pamphlets on the problem reminding people of the need to regularly maintain their wells and test it for water quality.

"People have grown used to drinking bacteria-free water because they live in a city with chlorinated systems. They forget that for centuries people were drinking water with bacteria in it and they became resistant to it."

So why all the hullabaloo over contaminated water? "It's a result of the extremely chlorinated, sanitary world we live in. But it just isn't that unusual (for wells to be contaminated)," Frederick said.

In other words, the mystery of the contaminated wells is no mystery at all. It's something you deal with if you have a well, he said.

The mystery of the foul stench, described as similar to rotten eggs or cat urine, is not so easily explained. Since March 18, DEQ investigators, university researchers and the EPA's national response team have been unable to crack the case.

They've called chemical companies looking for anyone who made unusual purchases of sulphur compounds. And they investigated the possibility methamphetamine labs were responsible.

When those turned up nothing, they went through the lists of chemicals that companies are required to keep in the event of a fire.

"We now know an awful lot about the chemicals stored at businesses and things that could happen in the future," Sisco said. But they found nothing about what caused the odor that plagued the valley for two weeks.

The good news, Sisco said, is that "the human nose is more sensitive than the testing equipment. If you can smell something, but we are not getting results registering on the testing equipment, it usually means it's not in high enough concentrations to harm you."

The problem with finding the source of the smell is that wind patterns blow the air around, frustrating even the best computer models and high-tech sniffers. The end results?

"The tests were not conclusive," Sisco said. "The testing devices are not as sensitive as we would like them to be."