From flooding to sick kids and pets, small legal claims show Sandy water crisis had a big impact on residents

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cases of water are stored at the Sandy Operations Center at 9150 South, 150 East on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019 for residents to pick up. The no drink order now applies only to homes and businesses between 1700 East and 2000 East and 10600 South and 11400 South, the city announced Sunday. The city says the problem started about Feb. 6, when a fluoride pump malfunctioned because of a power outage. It flooded the water system with fluoride and that also led to high levels of lead and copper, enough that it made some people sick.

In the wake of Sandy’s water contamination crisis, residents fear long-term damage to their children’s health, their pets and their homes — and a number are asking the city to pay for their missed wages, medical bills and replacement water filters.

The more than 20 small-damage claims filed with the city after a fluoride pump malfunctioned and flooded parts of the local water system last month were obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request. Together, they add up to more than $3,000, demonstrating the wide-reaching impacts the water incident had on residents in ways big and small.

“The claims kind of fall into different categories,” Chase Parker, the city’s risk management officer, told the City Council at its meeting last week. “There’s claims that have been filed because they missed work due to illness associated with their consumption of this water. There’s claims where they’ve submitted medical bills or veterinarian bills in response to this issue. Other times people have wanted us to replace water filters in their refrigerator.”

While experts say fluoride is beneficial in small doses, unsafe levels can cause a number of health issues. Several complainants said they had to take time off work — some for as long as a week — after either they or their children experienced gastrointestinal problems and stomach pains.

“Loss of sleep, inability to concentrate or do physical activity for periods of time because of persistent cough and throat drainage,” one person described their symptoms in the complaint. “I am also a recovering cancer patient and hope this does not affect my 1 year diagnosis.”

The complainant, who originally appears to have filed a request for $25,000 in damages, looks to have later withdrawn the claim after his or her cough improved.

The city redacted the names of residents filing the claims.

Another complainant — who took a week off work to care for his or her two young children, a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old, after they became sick from the water — is seeking $510 for bodily injury and property damage.

“We had what we thought was a stomach bug and headache for 1 week and didn’t know why,” the person wrote. “Not knowing the situation and not being aware of it until this weekend is very discouraging. What long-term effects is this going to have on our bodies? I’m just worried and frustrated that I had to miss work for something preventable.”

Many Sandy residents have expressed frustration that they were allowed to drink possibly tainted water for a week before they heard about problems with the city’s water supply, which began because of a power outage at one of the city’s wells on Feb. 6. The city deemed the water safe to drink on Feb. 17.

Anyone who believes they have an injury caused by Sandy can file a claim through an online form on the city’s website within one year from the date the incident occurred. The city then has 60 days to approve or deny the claim, after which point a complainant could pursue a case in district court if the case was denied.

“We get claims all the time,” said Sandy City Recorder Wendy Downs. “When snowplows hit mailboxes or the mailboxes get knocked over, or when any city property is hit, or if one of our vehicles had hit another vehicle. So we get claims all throughout the year. It’s kind of a little bit of everything.”

Sandy receives an average of 50 claims a year and pays out an average $278,617 annually, Parker told the council during a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday. A total 1,015 claims have been filed against Sandy since 1999, and the city has paid out $5,572,342 since that time. The claims, Parker said, are rarely adversarial.

“We’ve had a very cooperative relationship with these people," he said, speaking to claims generally. "They’ve been harmed and just want to be made whole and think for some reason that the city is at fault. And oftentimes they’re right. So we try to process these claims quickly and promptly.”

In this case, the city is asking claimants to provide receipts or other documentation, like medical or veterinary bills, to support their claims for damages.

While many of the complaints center around health damages to themselves or their children, several others focus on pets and other animals. One complainant said his or her young labrador started “having multiple seizures” after drinking the water; another sought $115 for the cost of a blood test to determine whether the fluoride had impacted a competitive show horse, which is insured for $25,000. “His health is of utmost importance,” the person wrote.

Still others requested money for property damage. One complainant flushed his or her home water system in conjunction with Sandy’s instructions, allegedly leading the heater to refill overnight and resulting in an increase in pressure that activated the pressure release valve and pushed water into the basement.

“The water dump flooded our laundry room, a bedroom and hallway soaking the drywall and carpeting,” the complaint stated. The person is seeking $300 from the city for a fan purchased for drying the carpets, water lost in the flushing and dumping process and the labor and time spent to deal with the incident.

While some people said they had receipts for extremely specific expenses — like a home fluoride kit, replacement water filters or bottled water — others said they had no way of quantifying the damage and frustration they had gone through.

“How do you put a dollar amount on a health factor that is unknown?” asked one complainant, who was concerned about the potential impacts of the contaminated water on his or her pipes and kids’ health. “I don’t think we have been given the full truth and therefore don’t know the full damage done.”

The Sandy City Council has voted to create a technical committee that will investigate the city administration’s response to the fluoride pump malfunction. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has cited the city for the high fluoride levels and is determining if Sandy appropriately reported elevated levels of lead and copper.

Additionally, Sandy has announced its Public Utilities director will be on paid administrative leave as independent investigators look into the city’s response to the fluoride pump malfunction.

City Council Chairwoman Kris Nicholl acknowledged that the claims aren’t representative of all the people who have been impacted by the water crisis.

And while the impacts have decreased, she said “there are still concerned people about long-term effects, whether it be health [or] long-term effects on their home and that’s normal, and I feel for them and I want to get those questions answered for them.”

“There’s no wiping our hands of it,” she continued. “We do have to monitor [the water quality] and monitor all the time and keep in contact with these people.”