Fluoride Action Network

The Madison Water Utility battles criticism over high fluoride levels in Well 28

Source: The Capital Times | August 18th, 2007 | By Mary Yeater Rathbun

The Madison Water Utility had to shut down far west side Well No. 28 Tuesday because there was too much fluoride in the water pumping into the drinking water supply, the utility announced Friday.

While the utility is so far unsure what caused the elevated fluoride, the incident has sparked further concern the utility is not effectively communicating its problems.

An e-mail that Water Quality Manager Joe Grande said was intended only for the utility’s employees and its board members appeared on Ald. Brenda Konkel’s blog Thursday morning.

Grande said Thursday he did not intend the information to get to the public until he put out the routine Friday water quality report.

The performance of Water Utility General Manager David Denig-Chakroff is already under scrutiny, following a series of water quality, management and communication problems at the utility.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s preference is to err on the side of public disclosure, his spokesman George Twigg said Friday afternoon.

“With both this and the questions about Well No. 29 notification, he is taking all that into account in his ongoing evaluation of the management performance at the water utility,” Twigg added.

Three citizen members of the Water Board’s communications subcommittee sent a letter to the mayor this week complaining about the utility’s failure to notify the public in late July that manganese-tainted water from Well No. 29 serving the east side was going to be pumped into the city ‘s drinking water before it happened.

Denig-Chakroff said it was just an oversight that the press release announcing that the well, out of use since October 2006, would be put onto stand-by status didn’t get sent out before the operational change was made.

Under stand-by status, the well is operated twice a week for brief periods to ensure that it is ready to use in the event of a water shortage.

Dan Melton, one of that letter’s authors, wrote in a Friday e-mail that he did not understand Grande’s response.

“I assume he’d want to get that word out IMMEDIATELY — via radio, via listserves, whatever means available, wouldn’t he? So individual Well 28 users could each make their own individual customer decision whether to drink — or have their family members — drink the water that day,” Melton wrote.

“The info doesn’t do customers any good on Thursday or Friday after the proble ‘s fixed. You put the word out, right away,” Melton went on. “Then, as soon as the fluoride levels are back down — not elevated, anymore — you put that word out also. ‘All Clear, everything’s OK.’ It’s not rocket science.”

According to the Friday report, the Water Utility discovered Tuesday during routine testing that water from Well No. 28 serving the Old Sauk Road-Beltline-Mineral Point Road area had an elevated amount of fluoride, a water additive that promotes dental health.

A water sample collected as it entered the distribution system measured 3.3 parts per million of fluoride, compared to the target level of 1.1 ppm, the report said. Previous fluoride readings, taken once daily during the period of Aug. 7-13, ranged from 0.65-1.15 ppm.

The federal EPA maximum contaminant level for fluoride is 4 ppm. Two ppm has cosmetic effects, according to the EPA. Tooth discoloration may result from long-term exposure to water with greater than 2 ppm of fluoride.

The EPA does not consider short-term exposure to water containing 3-4 ppm of fluoride to be harmful to human health; however, acute toxicity can occur at a level of 30 ppm or more of fluoride.

When the utility discovered the elevated fluoride level, it shut the well down and sent staff to find out how much high fluoride water had gone into the distribution system. Water test results (showing levels between 3.14 and 3.96 ppm) from locations around the periphery of the Well 28 service area suggested the entire service area was affected by the extra fluoride.

The utility sent out staff to flush hydrants and clear the high fluoride water from the water mains. Initially, 12 hydrants were opened at the edge of the service area to pull elevated fluoride water away from the well and out of the mains. Later, hydrants on dead-end courts in the affected area were also flushed to clear these mains.

The combined action of shutting down Well 28 and opening multiple hydrants caused many customers on the far west side to experience reduced water pressure or discolored water, according to the water quality report. Some customers also reported temporarily being out of water.

By early evening, service was restored to all water customers and Well 28 was delivering water with normal fluoride levels. Multiple fluoride measurements taken over the last 48 hours have shown fluoride levels at the well in the range of 1.28-1.36 ppm, according to Grande.