A construction issue that stopped the fluoridation of Wellington’s municipal water system over the past two years will be rectified soon, but Wellington Village Council members are not happy with the fact that they and the general public were not informed of the change.
“For me, the most important thing is being transparent with our residents,” Mayor Anne Gerwig said at a workshop session Monday, Aug. 8. “I’m incredibly embarrassed by this.”
After a unanimous council vote in 2017, fluoride was re-added to Wellington’s water system, reversing a vote by a previous council. The supplement was added to the water through a temporary system until May 2020 when the fluoridation system was taken offline temporarily as part of a planned construction project to expand and modernize the village’s water treatment facility.
The project was initially scheduled to be completed in September 2020. While the majority of the work was completed under the initial contract, as a result of contractor delays, several aspects of the project fell behind schedule, including the installation of a new, permanent fluoridation system, Village Manager Jim Barnes explained.
While the fluoride interruption was originally expected to last 90 days, the system has since been offline for more than two years. Last year, the village evaluated the remaining project work items, including the fluoridation system improvements, and reassigned the remaining work to a different contractor.
The discussion over the issue took place during the utilities portion of the council’s annual Capital Improvement Plan workshop, where the council was getting an overview of just under $10 million of utility projects planned for fiscal year 2023, as presented by Senior Engineer Anjuli Panse.
After Panse went through her presentation, Gerwig asked about when fluoride will be returned to the village’s water system.
“When is the fluoridation process going to be back in place?” she asked. “That has been a concern throughout the community. When will it go back to what this council voted on five years ago?”
Panse said that her department is targeting a September return to fluoridation.
“That is at the latest,” she said. “We are hoping to come in a bit earlier than that. They are currently completing some of the controls for it.”
Vice Mayor Michael Drahos wanted to know why the council was not informed of the change.
“We were prompted by an outsider that the fluoride was not in our water system,” he said. “Why did we not have some sort of failsafe in place to indicate whether or not it is in our water? How did we not know that it wasn’t working?”
Barnes explained that personnel in the utilities department did know, since it was taken offline as part of the construction project.
“We needed to take the existing fluoridation system offline to be able to complete the new construction,” he said. “The existing system was not compatible with the plant expansion, and so it had to be redone.”
However, while the original timeframe for the lack of fluoridation was 60 to 120 days, it became a more serious problem once that stretched into years.
“This was done at the departmental level, and the council was not notified, and the senior staff was not notified,” said Barnes, who took over as village manager in early 2021.
“So, this predates your time as manager?” Councilman John McGovern asked.
“That’s right. It was taken offline in May of 2020,” Barnes replied.
As for the future, Barnes said that a new policy will be put in place.
“We will create a policy, not just specific to fluoride,” he said. “If there is any council action that ends up becoming suspended, changed or modified, it would have us officially come to the council to advise you.”
Barnes noted that a lack of water fluoridation has an impact no matter what side of the issue you’re on. Those who have been expecting to get supplemental fluoride through the water, that has not been happening since 2020. Conversely, some people who do not want fluoride in their water have been purchasing bottled water during that time unnecessarily.
The issue is greatest for young children, since water fluoridation is considered most useful for kids whose teeth are first coming in.
“The forming teeth inside the children is where it has to be ingested,” Gerwig said. “Topical fluoride does not work.”
Barnes recommended that concerned residents seek advice from their dental or medical professional to see if there is any supplement that is needed in the short term, particularly for children.
“We can’t turn back time to reintroduce it for those who missed it,” he said. “And likewise, we can’t turn back time to let people know it wasn’t there.”
Barnes and several council members stressed that the fluoride issue did not mean there was anything wrong with the water itself.
“The water was always perfectly safe to drink,” he said. “What happened did not affect the quality of the water.”
McGovern said that the fluoride issue should have been raised immediately. “This council unanimously voted to put the fluoridation back in the water in accordance with the expert guidelines,” he said. “The residents should have been informed of the change in fluoridation at the earliest possible time so that they could take any remedial measures that they might have chosen to take.”
Aside from getting the fluoride back in the water as soon as possible, McGovern wanted assurances that something like this will never happen again without some kind of immediate notification.
Gerwig was not satisfied with the excuse that the village’s management has changed since the issue first began.
“The management team has not entirely changed,” she said. “There’s a different manager, but as far as the team, reporting should have been across all of senior management. It should not have been just one person was notified.”
In addition to the $10 million in utility projects planned for next year, the council also got a look at details regarding $9.4 million in one-time capital projects and $4.5 million in ongoing projects, for a total of just under $24 million in capital projects scheduled for fiscal year 2023. One-time projects include: Olympia Park Improvements ($600,000); Greenview Shores Bicycle Lanes ($250,000); Section 24 Preserve Expansion ($500,000); WCC Generator ($100,000); Public Safety Annex ($3,000,000); Aquatics Complex ($3,415,024); and South Shore Community Park ($1,500,000).