SANDY — Sandy leaders found themselves on the spot all night at a town hall meeting aimed at talking about the recent contaminated water situation, but it quickly turned into a barrage of questions and accusations from angry residents demanding answers.
“You can’t reverse health damage with this,” one resident yelled from the audience at Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn.
“You’re right, I cannot go back in time,” an apologetic Bradburn replied while trying to explain what the city is doing moving forward.
“My No. 1 goal is making it right for you,” the mayor said.
The town hall began with Sandy Public Works Director Tom Ward explaining his version of the timeline of events that began with a large storm on Feb. 5. Ward struggled to get through the timeline, however, as many residents yelled out questions or disputed what he was saying.
“No, that’s baloney,” one man yelled, accompanied by a chorus of “no’s” from the audience when Ward said the city went door-to-door notifying residents of possible contaminated water.
“We know that some of the things we thought we understood were wrong,” Ward said while also conceding, “We realize there’s better ways to communicate.”
After Ward took nearly 40 minutes to explain the city’s timeline, Bradburn told the audience that he shared their frustrations. He said he was “not in the know,” and the way the situation was initially explained to him had not been accurate.
He agreed with residents upset with the city for allegedly putting fliers on doors, calling it “not acceptable.”
“I failed you in several aspects. I should have been more on top of that sooner,” the mayor said.
Bradburn also acknowledged that he had not tested the city’s reverse 911 system prior to Friday, and quickly learned it was inadequate.
Because of the number of questions and comments being yelled out, the city quickly moved to the formal open comment section, during which Ward was the focus of many residents’ anger.
“I’m very disappointed you kept your boss, our mayor, in the dark until Friday,” one man said, who also called Ward’s response during his presentation “inadequate.”
That man, who said he is a chemist, also called out Ward for not doing field pH tests on the water. “I’m a chemist. This is simple stuff,” he said.
Another person asked Ward what his qualifications were for being in charge of the city’s drinking water.
“I feel like I’m being lied to,” a woman said of the city’s explanation of informing residents. “You violated my trust.”
The woman finished by telling Bradburn she trusted and voted for him.
“It’s a mistake I won’t do again.”
The mayor also announced Monday there would be an independent investigation into why the pump that regulates fluoride into the water system failed, and how the city responded.
As the evening progressed, many residents called for, and applauded suggestions calling for a new vote on the ballot to eliminate fluoride altogether from the city’s water supply.
Monday began in Sandy with dozens of volunteers streaming into City Hall to undergo training to collect water samples in neighborhoods affected by possible lead or copper contamination resulting from inadvertent release of undiluted fluoride on Feb. 6.
On Sunday, city officials announced it was safe to resume drinking and using the water.
The in-home tests, conducted at city expense, were to provide added assurance that water in individual homes was safe to use and consume, said Bradburn.
“This is a big effort to try to reach 2,800 homes as soon as we possibly can. We couldn’t do it without all these volunteers,” he said.
Volunteers were each asked to attempt to sample water from 20 homes. Only homes that had properly flushed their water by running hot and cold taps for 30 minutes could be tested.
Nathaniel and Crystal Ash, who live in the affected area, were among volunteers to turned out on Presidents Day to collect water samples. Nathaniel Ash said he hopes the additional testing “will give city residents an extra level of comfort that the water’s safe.”
Crystal Ash said the ordeal was “a little scary, at first.”
“Hopefully, they got the water taken care of or they say they do. But just to have that little extra comfort having the water tested,” she said.
The Ashes said they will continue to drink bottled water until they receive test results from their home.
Understanding the fear and frustration in the community, the couple said they hoped that homeowners would view them as people just trying to help.
“I think we could encounter some anger. We’re frustrated, too,” he said.
The city officials issued an advisory Saturday for people in the affected area not to drink water or use it for cooking. That reversed a city-issued advisory less than 24 hours earlier that said the water was OK to drink as long as systems have been adequately flushed.
John and Marie Fowler, who learned of the fluoride release days after returning to Utah from Italy on Feb. 11, said they are frustrated the city didn’t do more to inform residents of the problem.
They believe they were spared the brunt of it but they are concerned about their neighbors, particularly those who became ill. They are also worried about lingering effects such as damage to their pipes or what it will mean in terms of their home values.
“Some of the residents are very angry over this and anger is the only way I can describe it. They’re very angry,” John Fowler said.
A neighbor who collected their mail while they were in Europe picked up the handbill the city had left at their house and delivered it along with their mail. Marie Fowler said she thought it was junk mail and discarded it.
It wasn’t until they received a second flier at their home that they understood there was a problem.
The city of Sandy was cited by the Utah Division of Drinking Water for failing to notify the public adequately about potential contamination, along with a citation for exceeding safe fluoride levels.
Bradburn said the city attempted to notify as many people as possible through all of its channels.
“But our main notification system, which is our reverse 911 system, we realized most people had not opted in with their cellphones into that service and were not getting the message,” he said.
Bradburn said Sandy residents “should feel secure now. Three regulatory agencies — Environmental Protection Agency, state drinking water and Sandy utilities — have all reviewed these 193 samples and we only had one individual home that had a slightly elevated level of lead, which could be an isolated event.”
The city is continuing to work with that homeowner and the city has a claims process they can access from the city’s website. The website also explains how people can sign up for reverse 911 notifications.
The affected area included some 2,200 households from 700 East to 2140 East between 10600 and 11400 South.
According to the city, there were no schools affected above 1700 East. The affected schools were Alta High School, Sunrise Elementary and Altara Elementary. Pipes at the affected schools were drained over the weekend.
“On Tuesday morning, when students and teachers return after the Presidents Day recess, bottled water will be available for students, teachers and staff. Meals that do not require water from the faucet for either preparation or cleanup will be made and served in the cafeteria,” according to the city website, which quotes a Canyons School District notification to parents.
The school district is also conducting independent tests, the website states.
While there have been repeated assurances about the water’s safety from city officials, residents say they are concerned about consuming the water until they receive the results of samples taken from their individual homes.
Marie Fowler said she has reservations about washing her dishes or clothes.
David O’Bryant, whose home is about four houses from the fluoride pumping station, said he understood the initial spill occurred on Feb. 6 “but we didn’t hear about it until a week later on the 13th.”
While his family was not sickened, others in the immediate area, including a mom and 3-month-old baby, were sickened. He knows one family that reported that they all became ill, including their dog.
“That’s really disturbing. It’s really sad,” he said.
O’Bryant said he flushed his pipes again on Sunday. The discharge left a coating of sediment in the sinks of his family’s home, causing him to worry whether the coating on the interior of their pipes has been damaged or if their water softener or water heaters have been affected.
He collected before and after samples and city officials said they would collect samples at his home on Monday.
Nate Roe, whose infant boy and wife were sickened by the water, said Monday that they were advised by physicians to have their other children tested as well.
Roe said he, too, had a bad headache after consuming the water, which he said “tasted like a metal pipe. The family’s illnesses preceded notification from the city.
O’Bryant said the events are worrisome, particularly how it may affect his children. On Monday, when he went to brush his teeth, he nearly turned on the tap until he was reminded by the water bottle on the counter.
“There are water bottles all over my house,” he said.