As Sandy City declared Sunday evening that all of its water is now safe to drink, residents were asking why many of them were allowed to drink possibly tainted water for a week before they heard about problems.
A few even said the city never did notify them, and that they only heard about dangers through the news media.
Sandy City officials apologized Sunday and vowed to rectify problems and ensure their system is safe.
“I apologize for the lack of communication that was felt amongst residents,” Mayor Kurt Bradburn said at a news conference. “We apologize, of course, about the tremendous inconvenience and health issues that this has caused. We will be there to help and assist in any way we can.”
The city declared that water in all areas was safe to drink late Sunday evening, and it lifted its no-drink ban in some areas earlier in the day. It said the decision was made in consultation with state and federal officials after watching test results in recent days.
Problems began Feb. 6, when a fluoride pump malfunctioned because of a power outage. It flooded parts of the water system with huge amounts of fluoride — which can cause health problems, plus the acidic fluoride also corroded pipes in some homes to release also-dangerous heavy metals such as lead and copper.
The city said it received complaints about taste within a day of the malfunction, and found and fixed the problem 44 hours after it began. It said it initially thought it affected a small area of 50 to 60 homes, and sent workers to hand out flyers there.
Tom Ward, director of Sandy City Public Utilities, said if people were not home, flyers were not left — which was a mistake. He said people in the small area reported no health problems, and the city figured it was not a widespread issue.
But in later days, it started to receive complaints of health issues outside that small area — and the city realized it had affected thousands of homes.
Eventually, the city did use social media, reverse 911, news media notification and sending “all hands on deck” door-to-door to notify residents.
“But the point is we could have done that sooner,” Ward said. “I failed in my duty in reaching some people. And that’s my responsibility.”
“I never was notified by the city,” complained resident Steven Fisch, similar to complaints that many posted on social media. “I found out about it on Twitter on Saturday, from a news tweet by The Salt Lake Tribune.”
He lives in the area where restrictions were lifted Sunday morning. “The city never notified me about that either.”
Cydne Corlett first heard about problems on a Friday newscast. “So we had been drinking possibly contaminated water for a week,” a time when she and her husband had stomach cramps and unusual dry mouth.
She said a city worker finally knocked on her door Saturday. “They asked if I wanted a case of water. They said they didn’t have one, but they could mark down if we wanted one. I said this is ludicrous because we have now been drinking bad water for over a week.”
She said her family plans to get tested for contaminants, and she will probably have their dog tested also.
Kay Freeman said she also first heard of problems through a newscast Saturday. She did some research, and found recommendations to flush their water for an hour. “All of our sinks had a black residue after we did that,” she said.
She found the water could be dangerous for her horses, so her family had to lock them outside in the cold and away from an automatic watering system in their barn. She attempted to get water from the city in large containers, but found that wasn’t working. The city later sent a truck to deliver water for the horses.
At the Sunday news conference, Royal DeLegge, director of environmental health for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said about 90 people had reported health problems possibly related to the water, as had some dog owners about their pets.
“We’ve had a number of reports, mostly to Poison Control, of people who did suffer some symptoms, which are mostly are gastroenteritis [stomach flu], stomach cramping, pains, possibly vomiting … foul taste in the mouth.”
He added, “Those we understand have largely abated. They were very short term. We anticipate no long-term adverse impacts.”
Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said some tests show that high levels of lead and copper — caused by fluoride corroding pipes — were found in some homes, but that Sandy City itself did not deliver any water contaminated with lead or copper.
The highest lead result seen from a home so far is 394 micrograms per liter; anything above 15 micrograms per liter is considered harmful enough to require remediation. For copper, a test found as much as 28,800 micrograms per liter and the action level is 1,300.
“We would consider those results to be significantly dangerous,” Owens said, but added officials don’t know exactly where such high levels may have occurred.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to know exactly what all of the homes were exposed to during the 44-hour timeframe that the fluoride event was happening. We can’t go back and retroactively sample that,” Owens said.
“What we do have are these two samples that indicate it could have been at least that high. We don’t know if those homes are representative of the entire zone,” she said, adding pipes in older homes were more susceptible to problems.
So, DeLegge said, “A subsequent sampling is being made for lead and copper at this point" in homes throughout the area. "However we think that the crisis is largely passed. It was very short term.”
Owens also said some tests had show elevated levels of arsenic, aluminum and magnesium, “but not significantly elevated levels” that exceeded safety limits.
Despite the problems in notifying homeowners, state and county officials said at the news conference that the city was relatively quick to notify them and worked well to update them about problems and steps it took.
Sandy officials scheduled a town hall meeting to talk to residents about the water problems Monday at 7 p.m. at The Theater at Mount Jordan, 9360 S. 300 East.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has cited the city for the high fluoride levels and is determining if the city appropriately reported the elevated lead and copper levels. On Friday, the city asked residents to help flush the system by running their taps, but said the water was drinkable. That changed on Saturday, after new tests showed elevated levels.
“Our job is not done,” said Ward, the city utilities director. “Our commitment to our regulating agencies — the county and the state — and our commitment to our residents it to continue that sampling” and to share the information.