'It wasn't on our radar' - Health Dep talks about contaminated water at River Drifters

The Hamilton County Health Department answers questions about the investigation of contaminated well water at River Drifters.

UPDATE (Monday):

TDEC says most recent water quality tests at River Drifters restaurant in Chattanooga came back negative for E. Coli and total coliform.

The restaurant also posted an update on Facebook:

The post says, "Good news Drifters: the tests from TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation) came back with ZERO bacteria or any bad stuff. This is with our new purification system and our old well. The new well will be plumbed and approved hopefully by Monday or Tuesday. We were not required to dig a new well, but rather just pass the tests, but River Drifters doesn’t roll like that. Go big or go home! We’ll have the best water on the planet soon. (Or at least really great quality.) Stay tuned for a grand “BACK IN ACTION” party. Details to follow.

We’re gonna need ya on this one! It will be epic! Please share this. Obviously this has been a big deal; any and all support is definitely appreciated.

If you have questions or concerns, please call me personally. I’m the owner and I’m your contact. My personal cell is 423-304-1196. I’m giving this to answer serious and legitimate questions only. Before 5:00 calls would be greatly appreciated!"

Also on Monday, we learned that the number of people who reported getting sick at River Drifters is now up to 102.

Depend on us to keep you posted.


The Hamilton County Health Department has suspended the license of River Drifters restaurant on Suck Creek Road.

For now the restaurant can only serve pre-packaged food or bottled drinks. Nothing can be made in the kitchen as the investigation into contaminated well water continues.

As we reported, a customer filed a lawsuit against the business.

The health department says than 80 people have reported getting sick, including cases of E. coli and norovirus.

"I can see why somebody would be upset, but I can't see why somebody would blame me as the business owner for something that happened fifty feet underground," owner Charlie Eich said Thursday.

The health department says they started inspecting the restaurant earlier this month after they first got reports of people getting sick.

However, it took two days of investigating before they realized the business used well water.

"It was two days later that we found out they were on the well system, so we had to have an alternate water system set up," Bonnie Deakins with the Hamilton County Health Department said.

The question was not asked by inspectors before the restaurant opened a few months ago.

"We did not ask the operator at opening if they had a well," Deakins said. "We haven't had a restaurant on a well in decades."

We asked Deakins if the health department should have asked about the water source before the restaurant opened.

"Because we hadn't seen a restaurant on a well in decades, it wasn't on our radar," Deakins said. "We didn't ask and the owner did not offer that information."

Two days after the investigation started, the owners told the health department they used well water, then tests were done to confirm the water was contaminated.

"We are very aware and very sorry that people have gotten sick, and we know they've been through a lot of discomfort," Deakins said.

Eich said he thinks even if tests were done before they opened, they would have come back clean because he says the contamination didn't start until sometime after that, but Deakins says the test still could have still shown contamination.

"It may have not have been to the level that made someone sick at that point, but it still could have easily had contamination."

Eich says they complied with everything asked of them.

He apologized to customers, and says he's installing a new well and filtration system.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation handles water testing.

They say the business should have notified them about the well water before they opened.

The investigation continues and they're still looking for the source of the contaminated water.

Moving forward, the health department will ask every business what the source of its water is.

Efron Ormaza lives near River Drifters. He says he isn't concerned about his well water because it's treated and tested.

As the owner of Terra Nostra restaurant in Chattanooga, he says he feels for the River Drifters owners.

"As a restaurant owner I feel sorry for them," Ormaza said. "I'm sure it was not intentional."

TDEC recommends homeowners have their private water supply tested annually for bacteria.

If anyone living near River Drifters is concerned about their well water, TDEC encourages them to call (423) 634-5745.

TDEC says regular water monitoring is the responsibility of public water systems.

The quality of the water source and the population served determines how often the water should be monitored.

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