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Investigation says Sandy City failed to give public notice about water contamination

Posted at 3:41 PM, May 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-30 20:09:39-04

SANDY, Utah — Sandy's Public Utility Director Tom Ward was reinstated after an investigation into Sandy City's response to water contamination in February found the city did not hide information from the public but failed "to comply with technical regulatory notice requirements" and should have "communicated more information to impacted residents earlier in the event."

The independent investigation, conducted by law firm Parsons Behle & Latimer, concluded the city could have organized its response better by following the city's emergency response plan but the response was generally within normal industry standards.

Mayor Kurt Bradburn announced Ward's reinstatement Thursday afternoon.

"I am looking forward to getting back to work and serving the residents of Sandy," Ward said. "There were a lot of lessons learned from this event but I am committed to applying all of those lessons to improving the department services and our communication with residents."

The city received complaint calls beginning Thursday, February 7, and said it discovered a malfunctioning fluoride pump that was affected by power issues after a snowstorm and began sampling water in the affected area.

From there, the investigation said the city should have warned residents and a public notice was changed before being published on February 8, removing "Drinking Water Warning" and "Do Not Ingest Warning" language.

"It is a concern that there was delay in getting notification out to the affected households for a 'Do Not Ingest' warning, particularly when there were confirmed reports of the acute illnesses resulting from the fluoride overfeed," the investigation said. "No reverse 911 calls were made in the initial response and the 'Do Not Ingest' warning was removed from the initial public notice."

The investigation also found miscommunications led to no information about possible lead, copper or other secondary metals contamination in that notice and the door-to-door distribution of that notice did not reach all affected residents.

A press release could have been released on February 13, two days before the actual release was sent out, and Ward reported supporting releasing it on February 13.

However, a final decision was made not to publish a media announcement and the investigation said while Ward could have pushed harder for a press release, "it does not appear he was attempting to withhold information from the public."

Statements from other city employees supported Ward's claimed position while communications from Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton opposed a release.

Everton said in the investigation she did not know at the time if it was an emergency situation and, "in hindsight, would have asked many more questions before making a decision."

A door-to-door effort was made to alert more residents on February 13 but a media release would have helped the city reach more residents, the investigation said.

A press conference was finally held on February 15 and the city said about 600 homes were affected, from 10600 South to 11400 South and 2000 East to 700 East. The city said residents in the affected area were informed within 24 hours and told to flush their systems.

The city also said the water has been tested and they believe it is safe to drink once again.

According to the investigation, Utah Department of Environmental Quality executive director Alan Matheson sent a text message to Ward on Saturday, February 16, expressing concern that no tests had been performed confirming the water was safe to drink.

"After changes in the water chemistry, such as occurred when the fluoride spiked, heavy metals can remain elevated for some time. The overriding consideration now is ensuring members of the public are not exposed to unhealthy water," Matheson said. "Did the information you provided to the 600 homes clearly state that you don't know yet whether the water is safe? If not, and unless you have data confirming lead and copper levels meet drinking water standards, you need to make it clear to affected residents that their water may still not be safe for consumption. If you don't, the state feels an obligation to do so. We stand ready to help in any way."

Sandy City issued an update on February 16 advising residents from 10600 South to 11400 South and 700 East to 2000 East to not drink the water and in a press release, said not to drink or cook with the water until lab results confirm whether or not lead and copper concentration levels are safe.

Samples were taken on February 15 and results from one area showed an elevated level of lead, but not copper, according to the investigation.

Door-to-door delivery of this information was not completed until February 18, three days after the media event and four days after the city learned about lead and copper level violations.

The investigation said Sandy could have avoided complaints and non-compliance issues with an earlier media announcement and trying to avoid causing a "panic" among residents "was not warranted."

The investigation finished by saying improvements to the water system are beyond its scope. However, it did recommend Sandy update its emergency response plan.

Recommendations included involving the media early in an event, establishing a comprehensive public notification system with a preapproved notice template and centralizing water-related complaints.

“I made the commitment to residents that this would be a very transparent process," said Mayor Bradburn. "While it is a painful exercise to go through an independent investigation, it is absolutely vital to make improvements in the future. During an emergency it’s difficult to understand all of the moving parts that led to how decisions were made. This report provides a clear outline of what exactly happened and when. This will be extremely valuable in assessing our response as a whole to identify where we performed well and where we can improve.”

Read the report here: