Contaminated Water Scandal in Sandy :
Citizens living in Sandy City are reeling as they deal with the aftermath of a severe water contamination issue that was hidden from the public for over a week.
Nearly 3,000 homes unknowingly used water that was potentially toxic and unsafe to drink. This caused many Sandy residents to question the motives and competency of Mayor Kurt Bradburn and his staff. Why had people been allowed to drink this toxic water for so long? Where were the warnings?
On February 6, one of the eleven wells that supply water to the city had a malfunction with a chemical feeder, which released an excess of fluoride into the water. The incident was discovered on February 7 after residents called about a foul taste and reports of illness. The malfunction was attributed to a storm and a subsequent power outage.
Sandy City consulted with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which provided literature to distribute to citizens, including a warning that high levels of fluoride could leach toxic heavy metals. The instructions also said not to drink the water. This publication, however, was re-drafted by Sandy City officials without either of these important factors included. Samples of the contaminated water were lab tested for lead and copper, among other dangerous contaminants.
A cursory attempt was made to notify those residents in the 50 homes initially believed to be affected. Many first-hand accounts from people in this zone tell a different story: they were completely unaware of the problem until the news finally became public.
By the time the lab results came back on February 14, the suspected contamination area made up three zones encompassing 2,893 homes. This is when the news finally went public. People living in these zones were told to flush all faucets in their homes and they would be safe. Hours later, a new notice went out: DO NOT DRINK.
The fluoride level reported from initial testing was 104 mg/L. The maximum amount safely allowed in municipal water is 4 mg/L. According to Dr. Barbara Crouch, the executive director of Utah Poison Control Center, the primary concern in this instance is gastrointestinal discomfort. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the most readily identifiable health effects from consuming water with elevated levels of fluoride are fluorosis of the teeth and sclerosis of the bones.
The corrosive nature of fluoride caused a much larger concern, as it has the potential to strip the protective coating from pipes, leaching toxic heavy metals into the water. This can be much more dangerous and persistent than short term fluoride overexposure. Lab results reported lead levels at 394 parts per billion (ppb) and copper at 28,800 ppb. The EPA action level for lead is 15 ppb, and 1,300 ppb for copper. This makes the reported levels, respectively, over 26 times and 22 times the amount safely allowed.
Dr. Crouch states that again the main concern for both copper and lead exposure in this instance is gastrointestinal symptoms, but advises that a blood test for lead contamination in children is a good idea. The WHO says lead poisoning has devastating health consequences, including childhood intellectual disabilities. The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that high doses of copper can cause permanent liver and kidney damage.
Residents Confronting Mayor Bradburn
As someone who grew up in Sandy, this incident hit close to home. I joined a friend at the water contamination town hall meeting on February 18. The energy in the room was palpable and intense.
Mayor Bradburn, who led the meeting, was smiling and joking until one citizen called him out on his attitude. He was quite serious from then on. It wasn’t exactly related, but interesting when a citizen brought up the “raise he gave himself.” Mr. Bradburn addressed this as though it were a commonly known point of contention. He seemed proud of himself for having removed that $40k+ a year raise in response to the public’s disapproval. It’s not surprising that the gravity of the situation was lost on him: The mayor lives east and outside of the contaminated area.
“We would hate to have overreacted,” said Tom Ward, the Director of Public Utilities for Sandy, as he described the initial reaction and the subsequent decision not to go public. As the Mayor promised to “make everyone whole,” a visibly angry man shouted, “YOU CAN’T REVERSE HEALTH DAMAGES!” One woman let Bradburn know she voted for him. “I will not make that mistake again,” she said.
“Where was the state in all of this?” one angry resident asked, referring to the city staff as “yokels.” Marie Owens, Director of Drinking Water at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, explained that when they were notified of the leak, they directed Sandy City to inform not only those 50 homes believed to be affected but three times as many. Neither Ward or Bradburn said why they did not heed this advice.
“No new illnesses reported on that day,” one of the slides detailing the chain of events noted. “I called on that day and reported being sick!” a woman yelled out. “Well, not that our office was aware of…” the mayor replied. “I spoke to your office directly!” she insisted.
The Account Given by the City Not Corresponding to Residents’ Experiences
One sentiment appeared consistent throughout this town hall: the account given by the city did not match up to what individuals experienced. “I feel like I’m being lied to!” one resident said. Echoes of agreement filled the Mount Jordan theater. The words were again used, “Sandy City’s water is safe to drink,” but attendees did not appear confident about this promise.
Bradburn explained that Tom Ward initially minimized the situation and that he was allegedly unaware of the true severity until February 15. This effectively directed most of the anger towards Ward. Soon afterward Ward was placed on paid administrative leave.
There was an interesting twist involving an unnamed private contractor being allowed into the well shortly before the incident. When asked why the contractor was there, Ward said he was modernizing the chemical feeder systems. Unfortunately, there were no alarms that might have alerted anyone of the potential for disaster.
The only person who seemed satisfied with the city’s response to these events was also the first citizen to get up and speak. When the town hall was finally winding down, the same gentleman stood up and again praised the city. The citizens of Sandy, he said, voted to add fluoride to the water supply 18 years ago. There are far more recent studies regarding the safety and efficacy of fluoridating water that is worth looking into. The mayor promised that putting water fluoridation to a re-vote, among other suggestions, will go straight into his “Good Idea Folder.” Bradburn also promised an investigation, which is still in progress, as well as badly needed improvements to the emergency notification system.
Potential Presence of Toxic Heavy Metals in the Water
Later, I was able to get some limited statements from Mayor Bradburn. As it is clear now that the city was aware of the potential presence of toxic heavy metals in the water, why, with this knowledge, did he still decide not to go public?
Bradburn reiterates that he believed the event to be localized. To be cautious they had initially attempted to notify 100 homes rather than just the approximated 50 that the Public Utilities Department had suspected. Yet there was no mention of this extra effort in the thorough timeline of events that was presented in the meeting.
Bradburn declined any comment regarding the knowledge of possible leaching of heavy metals, mentioning that it is still under investigation. When asked to clarify why the contractor was allowed into the well, he restated Ward’s claim that they were upgrading the systems in the well and mentioned that the city would be covered under the contractor’s insurance policy.
According to the mayor, although the potentially affected area totals nearly 3,000 homes, the city now believes the actual number of affected homes to be under 600. This is something citizens will never know for sure, as the original tests were taken from just two homes, and no further testing was done until over a week later — after the issue was finally made public.