Gilbert voters in 2000 approved a mandate to add fluoride to drinking water, but the equipment was shut down in July 2011 due to concerns over corrosion and leaking. News of the problem apparently did not reach upper management until about 13 months after fluoridation was halted.
Despite the fluoridation problems, CH2M HILL says Gilbert is in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, a federal law that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate levels of naturally occurring and man-made contaminants in drinking water.
Kevin Dixon, the company’s director of environmental compliance, said the town is not exceeding maximum contaminant levels and that its two water-treatment plants are operated by “highly-qualified individuals.”
But Dixon also identified several areas for improvement in Gilbert’s water operations and recommended a follow-up audit in six months to verify that new procedures have been adopted and are being followed.
Town employees need to improve record-keeping to provide greater transparency and should work on strengthening interdepartmental communication, Dixon said.
While Gilbert’s water department files monthly operating reports to state and Maricopa County agencies, those reports apparently never went above the public-works director internally, Dixon said.
That needs to change, Vice Mayor John Sentz said.
“If we’re sending stuff externally, our (town) manager ought to at least know what’s going on over there,” Sentz said. “The concern I had when this issue surfaced is we’re testing the water … why didn’t we detect there was no fluoride in it and why wasn’t it reported?”
Dixon said the audit also found that vacant positions in the water department are keeping the town from doing more “in-house” testing, leaving Gilbert more dependent on outside services from TestAmerica.
Dixon recommended the town hire a new laboratory technician and a chemist and offer laboratory training for operators, chemists and technicians by the end of the year.
Town spokeswoman Dana Berchman said Wednesday that the town is “pleased” the audit found it to be in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and that officials have already begun implementing certain recommendations.
“We’ve made changes in the ways the divisions communicate and share data and have also made improvements to how our records are being organized and managed,” Berchman said.
Town officials will request funding for a follow-up audit in fiscal 2014, and other specific changes are still being identified, she said.
Former Water Manager Chris Ochs and former Public Works Director Lonnie Frost, who oversaw water production, were immediately put on administrative leave when the fluoridation stoppage was discovered in August. Ochs was later terminated, and Frost retired after 28 years with the town.
After examining Gilbert’s water production, CH2M HILL made several recommendations designed to improve town operations, including the following:
• Improve monitoring plans to be more specific; become more transparent and organized in record-keeping; maintain a better dialogue between departments; improve communication with customers.
• Conduct an external follow-up audit in six months to ensure that recommendations have been implemented and to prepare for a state sanitary survey in 2013.
• Conduct an in-house compliance audit every three to five years.
• Improve safety and chemical hygiene procedures in the testing laboratory.
• Require laboratory training for operators, chemists and technicians before the end of the year.
• Hire and train a laboratory technician and a chemist to fill current vacancies.