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Sandy delayed notifying state, public of contaminated water

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Updated - Feb 16th, 2019 @ 9:02pm | Posted - Feb 16th, 2019 @ 11:07am


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SANDY — Contaminated drinking water sickened a 3-month-old baby and several other people in an area of Sandy where a no-drink order is in place pending lab results on levels of copper and lead.

The Utah Division of Drinking Water urged Sandy city officials all last week to hasten sampling and completion of results that would indicate the extent of possible lead or copper contamination stemming from an inadvertent release of undiluted fluoride on Feb. 6.

As a result of delays, division director Marie Owens said the city was cited for failing to notify the public adequately about potential contamination, along with a citation for exceeding safe fluoride levels.

"We have been pushing Sandy City for metals results since early last week. I am frustrated it took a full week to get those metal results to us," said Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water.

"I am not sure if they had the results sooner."

Sandy city officials issued an advisory Saturday for people in the affected area from 10600 South to 11400 South and 700 East to 2000 East to not drink water or use it for cooking until lab results determine the amount of lead and copper concentrations. 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.

Owens said the impacted area has expanded in size twice since the initial discovery and now includes as many as six schools, care centers and a recreation center. More than 450 households are impacted.

Late Saturday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert released a statement on the contamination.

"I am deeply concerned about the health of those families who have been affected by this contamination. That is why I have directed our Utah Departments of Environmental Quality, Health and Public Safety to work closely with Sandy City and the Salt Lake County Health Department to ensure that every precaution is taken to protect the safety and health of our citizens," it read.

Meanwhile, state regulators are working in conjunction with the city and area schools to make sure all the facilities are adequately flushed by the time children return on Tuesday, Owens said.

Residents were being advised Saturday not to boil the water because boiling actually increases metal concentrations. City representatives were going door to door delivering water and will individually test each home, business and facility in the impacted area, Tom Ward, the city's director of public utilities, said on Saturday.

Ward said Saturday the pump sent undiluted high concentrations of fluoride into the system for about 36 to 48 hours.

The system was flushed immediately after the city began getting complaints, he said, and again when the latest test results came back on copper and lead. "That became a new event for us. We are going through a different protocol."

Multiple people have reported becoming sick as a result of ingesting the water, including an infant Owens said was consuming the water in formula.

Nate Roe, the father of 3-month-old Henry, said he talked with multiple city employees by phone after the infant vomited his formula twice on Wednesday. His wife was sick as well, and the water tasted metallic.

A city worker visited his home and suggested the problem was a malfunctioning water softener.

Roe said he doesn't have a water softener.

Sandy city employees Taylor Vick and Mike Fox distribute water to residents at a staging area on 700 East in Sandy on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Residents in a portion of Sandy have been instructed not to use their tap water due to lead and copper contamination. Photo: Spenser Heaps, KSL

Workers told him to repeatedly flush his system and call the Utah Poison Control Center to report medical issues, but assured him the water was safe to drink.

The center, however, could not advise him of what to do unless he knew the level of fluoride exposure. He said the city later told him it was 150 times what it should be.

When the city declared the water safe to drink, the Roe family resumed using tap water in their home by Feb. 11.

"Then we found out yesterday (Friday) from a news article that there is lead and copper in the water," he said. "It is infuriating. Nobody told us about copper. Nobody told us about lead."

A Sandy City mother, who asked for her name to be withheld to protect her 3-year-old daughter's identity, said the girl tested "high" for levels of lead her pediatrician's office and they were referred for a full blood screening at a hospital lab for lead and copper.

Dr. Mike Moss, medical director of the Utah Poison Control Center, said multiple calls came after the initial burst of fluoride hit the drinking water system and they are still fielding calls from residents concerned over potential lead or copper exposure.

The center is available 24 hours a day at 800-222-1222.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are no safe levels of lead for children because it is absorbed at a faster rate than by adults. Lead poisoning can damage children's nervous systems, brains and other organs. It can also lead to additional health, learning and behavioral problems.

The EPA does not have a health-based standard for lead or copper, but instead sets an "action" limit on when water providers should act and flush systems.

The action limit for lead is 15 parts per billion. The action limit for copper is 1,300 parts per billion.

Owens said the results from metals testing when Sandy flushed its system initially came in at 394 parts per billion for lead and 28,800 parts per billion for copper.

"There is no health-based standard for lead or copper," she said. "What we do know is these levels are high, substantially higher than anything we would ever consider safe."

Sandy set up a staging area Saturday in a parking lot across from Fire Station 34, located at 10765 S. 700 East, to hand out bottles of water and had an emergency operations command center at City Hall.

Just before 4 p.m., the city announced on Twitter it had made more than 54,000 water bottles available and had more on the way. A later tweet advised water would be available at the old Reams location until 8 p.m., and after that residents could go to the public utilities division at 9150 S. 150 East.

Owens said she was expecting to get updated results Saturday, but that did not happen. As a result, the no-drink advisory will remain in effect into Sunday until information comes in that the water is safe.

"We have been told they completed samples yesterday," Owens said.

Bryant Weber, a Sandy resident who lives in the area closest to the initial site of the contamination, said crews flushed the system, and by Feb. 8 mailed a letter advising residents the problem was solved.

"They said they had it under control," he said. Then he learned of the no-drink water restrictions issued this weekend.

"We have all been drinking the water this last week."

He said a friend and neighbor who is a chemist ran a pH test on the tap water that came back at 3.89, which is extremely acidic.

A measurement of seven is neutral, and the EPA recommends public drinking water systems measure between 6.5 and 8.5.

"That is low enough to dissolve metal," he said. "Doesn't the city have a pH tester?"

A private lab in Sandy has been notified of the urgency of the matter. It can deliver results in about a day's turnaround, with Owens adding the city has been directed to accelerate collection of about 100 samples this weekend.

Sandy city officials learned of a problem with its drinking water on Feb. 6 when residents started calling, Owens said.

City workers took samples Feb. 7 and the state was notified Feb. 8.

Sandy city employees distribute water to residents at a staging area on 700 East in Sandy on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Residents in a portion of Sandy have been instructed not to use their tap water due to lead and copper contamination. Photo: Spenser Heaps, KSL

Following the heavy snowstorm that hit the Salt Lake Valley early in the month, a fluoride feeder had flushed chemicals into a portion of the delivery system undiluted. Owens said what would follow is a leech of lead and copper, but officials couldn't be sure until metals testing was conducted.

Those results came back Friday, which is when Sandy city officials first notified residents there could be lead and copper in their water.

"I believe they could have erred on the side of more communication than they did," Owens said.

"I suspected that lead and copper might be a problem, but we had no evidence that it was until we got the results Friday," she added.

Roe said the city bungled how it handled the water contamination from the outset.

"They hold a press conference Friday evening after hours when there is no one in the office to take a phone call and release it to the press," he said. "Whoever is pulling the strings totally botched this. It is embarrassing."

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