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Sandy utility director put on leave after water contamination

SANDY — Sandy City’s Director of Public Utilities, Tom Ward, announced he will take an administrative leave as the city investigates the water contamination from last week.

Too much fluoride through the water system caused some pipes to corrode and leach metals, including copper and lead, into the water supply of some homes.

“My first responsibility is public health,” Ward said in a statement he made with Mayor Kurt Bradburn. “My second responsibility to the city of Sandy is the confidence in your water supply.”

He says that to help restore public confidence in the water supply he supports an independent investigation on the recent contamination.

“Due to the distraction of the media, I feel my ability to direct the public utility’s department is being hampered,” Ward said. “So I will be stepping away while the investigation is being conducted.”

There was no time table given on how long the investigation expects to be. Bradburn says he supports the decisions Ward made.

“It’s important that we allow the fact-gathering process to play out,” Bradburn said. “The best way to do that is through an independent investigation.”

He says he wants to take whatever steps necessary to restore public trust back in the city’s government.

What happened?

The city of Sandy first warned residents of about 50 homes their water supply may have been tainted with fluoride on Feb. 8th. A notice went out to those residents alerting them to the problem.

At a Sandy City Council meeting on Feb. 12, the city’s public utilities director, Tom Ward, described the timeline of events that led to the warning about drinking water. He told council members and city residents an equipment malfunction led to too much fluoride being added to water for a relatively small area.

One resident, Jodi Monaco, challenged his account at that meeting.

Jodi Monaco water sandy

Jodi Monaco was the only city resident who spoke at a council meeting on Feb. 12 to raise concerns about drinking water contamination. By the next meeting on Feb. 19, many more residents joined in. (Photo: Sandy City)

“I’m aware that this was 100 parts per million,” Monaco told the City Council, referring to the concentration of fluoride in her water. “According to the research that I have here … it’s toxic at at least 4 per million.”

Monaco said she found all of this out herself, partly through Googling and partly by personally contacting Sandy Public Utilities Asst. Operations Manager Mike Campbell. None of it had been included in the notice she’d received.

She’d also learned, she told city council members, that fluoride was corrosive, giving them an early warning that lead could slip into the water supply. She even brought copies of her data with her and made sure that every person present – including Mayor Kurt Bradburn – received a copy.

Councilman Chris McCandless suggested Monaco take her concerns directly to the city’s department of public utilities.

“From the council’s perspective, we would not hear about this. This would go to administration and would not go to the council,” McCandless said. “I would appreciate it if you would take your suggestions and meet with [Public Utilities Director] Tom [Ward].”

The brush-off left Monaco furious.

“If this were a business – there’s a communication tree that should happen where, if you have an issue, it’s escalated,” she replied. “You guys should at least know. … You don’t expect a water contamination call? Are you kidding me?”

Required information was left out of the notice

Sandy City received its first call from a resident complaining about “bad tasting water” on Feb. 6 at 4:50 p.m.

By the next morning, they were practically flooded with complaints. According to the timeline Mayor Kurt Bradburn shared during a town hall meeting on Feb. 18, the city received “multiple calls” complaining about everything from a bad taste into the water to all-out illness.

sandy water school canyons

A drinking fountain at one of Canyons School District Schools

The Division of Drinking Water drafted up a notice that day that, in capital letters, warned residents not to ingest the water – a warning that did not appear similarly on the letter that was ultimately sent out.

The “do not ingest” warning, KSL 5 TV’s Ladd Egan has discovered, isn’t something the city had just decided to throw in. It was mandatory.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality requires cities to include that warning in all caps in situations like the water crisis Sandy endured. For some reason, however, it was left out.

Along with it, another key warning was left out. The original notice was also supposed to include a detail that would end up proving vitally important:

Corrosive water may cause damage or irreparable impacts to the water system in your home, including pipes, hot water tanks, filters, and water softeners.

It’s not entirely clear why either warning was removed.

Who is to blame?

Mayor Kurt Bradburn, during the Feb. 18 town hall meeting, told his people that he was “not in the know” about the scope of the problem.

“It was explained to me as fluoride event,” he told the people who’d gathered there, indicating that he hadn’t realized that metals had entered the water or that the contamination had spread beyond just fifty homes.

Bradburn specifically complained that the first notice should have had the warning telling people that the fluoride could have corroded the metal in their pipes. He even threw in what could be interpreted as a criticism of Public Utilities Director Tom Ward’s foresight, asking the Town Hall:

“Should we not have anticipated that that would have lead to some of these lead, copper, and other metals leeching into the system? I’m not an engineer, but that would have crossed my mind.”

Who should have been notified?

When Monaco spoke before the City Council, the City believed that only 50 homes had been affected by the water contamination. They called those 50 homes “Zone 1,” and, up until Feb. 13, it does not appear they attempted to notify anybody outside of that zone about the water problems.

They had, however, been specifically instructed to do so. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Drinking Water Director, Marie Owens, revealed to Dave & Dujanovic that her division directed the City to notify as many houses as possible to “make sure that they had the whole area.”

Owens claimed on Dave & Dujanovic that city officials not only ignored her direction, they misled her about what they had actually done.

“Sandy City informed us that they had delivered that to not only the 50 homes that they said were impacted but beyond that zone,” Owens said.

Expanding the warning

Nobody outside of Zone 1, however, had received a warning – a decision that left Monaco confused when she spoke to the City Council.

“My next door neighbor for the entire weekend was vomiting and had – I’m sorry – gastrointestinal issues running the full range,” she told them. “I’m curious about why my next door neighbor was not notified at all and why I had a flyer.”

The answer, Ward would reveal during the Feb. 18 town hall meeting, was that Monaco’s neighbor lived outside of Zone 1. In fact, it was Monaco’s speech, he admitted, that first made him realize the contamination had spread.

“Someone mentioned that their neighbor, who was … just outside the zone line [had gotten sick],” Ward told the town hall, declining to cite Monaco by name.

Eventually, the no-drink order expanded to 2,800 homes in Sandy. The city provided bottled water to residents who wanted it.

After the contentious town hall meeting earlier this week, city officials also agreed to launch an independent investigation into what happened.