‘I wasn’t on top of this’: At Sandy town hall meeting, mayor answers questions about bad water and lack of communication

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Sandy City mayor Kurt Bradburn and Tom Ward, the city's public utilities director fielded questions for over two hours Monday evening. 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 Ñ 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 • Residents here Monday sprayed city leaders with concerns about the drinking water and asked why they didn’t learn of problems faster.

Boyd Liddiard, who lives in Sandy, as does his 88-year-old father, questioned how the municipal water system could be allowed to have such a failure. Just as important to Liddiard was why Sandy waited so long to tell residents of tainted water.

“That’s beyond negligent,” Liddiard said before the town hall even began. “I think that’s criminal.”

Liddiard and his brother were among about 150 people in the audience at Mt. Jordan Middle School for the rare President’s Day government meeting.

Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn told the crowd that the episode has been frustrating for him, too. He was first told the water contamination was isolated to a small area and residents there had been notified. By 5 p.m. Friday, he learned the problem was bigger and he got involved in notifying the public.

“As your elected leader, I failed you in several aspects,” Bradburn said. “One of them being, I wasn’t on top of this.”

A power outage Feb. 6 caused a pump to flood parts of Sandy’s water system with large amounts of fluoride. That can cause health problems, and the acid corroded pipes in some homes to discharge heavy metals such as lead and copper.

Tom Ward, director of public utilities for Sandy, apologized to residents before giving a presentation on what happened and when.

When Ward said that by 5 p.m. on Feb. 7 tests showed the fluoride levels were safe, people in the audience interrupted him by saying no. Ward went on to explain city staff didn’t believe the excess fluoride had spread to more neighborhoods. It was a week before the the staff realized the scope of the problem required a larger effort to notify residents.

City workers eventually knocked on more doors and used social media, news releases and a reverse 911 to notify residents. The workers told residents to not drink the water and to flush their pipes. The last water restrictions were lifted Sunday.

Bradburn said it was discovered that cellphones can’t be called with the city’s reserve 911 system unless the phone user opts in. He posted instructions on a projector screen and encouraged people in the audience to register their phones.

Some at the town hall interrupted Bradburn and Ward to ask why flyers weren’t distributed faster and left on the doors of people who weren’t home. There also were questions of why the water had fluoride at all.

Salt Lake County voters in 2000 approved an initiative to require fluoride in culinary water. Bradburn said Sandy would hold another forum on whether to remove fluoride from the water.

Chrisella Herzog told Bradburn that even before the fluoride contamination, her grandmother and people in her neighborhood were suffering from gastrointestinal problems consistent with copper buildup.

“I’m talking about months before this event,” Herzog said.

Ward said the city routinely tests 400 water samples a month. He said the city would look into Herzog’s concerns.

Mark Kuehn, who works as a chemist, asked Ward why city staff didn’t have simple pH testers in their trucks. That would have revealed that the water was far too acidic and that the problem was greater than the city first realized.

The city on Monday used volunteers to collect water samples across Sandy. Evelyn Everton, Sandy’s deputy mayor, on Monday afternoon said the city received 70 volunteers. Each received 20 testing sample kits and a short training. The volunteers were instructed to knock on doors and ask residents if they have flushed their pipes. If not, Everton said, the volunteers were to tell the resident to do so. If the pipes have been flushed, the volunteer was to fill up a bottle from the kitchen faucet.

“If [water users] don't hear from the city, they just know that their results came back safe,” Everton said. “We're only going to contact them if there is a problem.”

Bradburn said he does not live in the affected areas but has been collecting samples from residents. Volunteers collected about 1,000 Monday, he said. He hopes to have results by Friday. Anyone with dangerous water will be notified within 24 hours.

Bradburn said residents who had to flush their pipes will receive a credit to reduce their water bills. Anyone sickened who has a doctor bill, Bradburn said, can file a claim with the city.

“You can’t reverse health damage with this!” shouted Stacy Norton, who sat near the back of the auditorium. Norton later told a reporter he worries about lead poisoning to his son.

Lee Davidson contributed to this report.