Sandy city Public Utilities director steps away from job during investigation into water contamination

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Tom Ward, Sandy City public utilities director fielded questions for over two hours Monday evening along with the mayor. 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, Feb.18, 2019 at a town hall meeting to address the issue. 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.

Sandy’s Public Utilities director will be on paid administrative leave as independent investigators look into the city’s response to a fluoride pump malfunction that contaminated parts of the municipality’s water supply.

Tom Ward announced his decision to step away from the job during a nearly two-minute-long news conference on Wednesday. Mayor Kurt Bradburn stood beside Ward and said he supported the decision.

“It’s important that we allow this fact-gathering process to play out, and the best way to do that is through an independent investigation. Tom will be put on paid administrative leave until we get a better understanding of exactly what happened,” Bradburn said.

Ward said he supports the investigation and was stepping away because media distraction was affecting his ability to do his job.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has cited the city for the high fluoride levels, which entered parts of the water system Feb. 6 after a power outage-related malfunction. While the city thought it had brought fluoride levels back to normal on Feb. 7 and had notified the affected residents, they discovered more than a week later that the issue was more widespread than they once thought.

In addition to being dangerous, the high levels of acidic fluoride corroded pipes in some homes, causing them to discharge the heavy metals lead and copper into the tap water. The DEQ is determining if Sandy appropriately notified the public of elevated levels of lead and copper in the water system.

Sandy’s city council voted unanimously Tuesday to form an independent committee to look into the city’s communications with residents about the tainted water and give recommendations for how to address future issues.