Report: Sandy didn't comply with notice requirements during water debacle

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SANDY — Sandy City did not comply with notice requirements — but did not hide information from the public — during a water contamination debacle earlier this year, an independent investigation concluded.

Tom Ward, the city’s public utilities director who was placed on leave following the incident, has been reinstated as of Thursday, according to a news release from the city.

The report concluded that the city’s response to the Feb. 5 incident was “generally within normal industry standards,” but that city officials could have communicated to the public more quickly and effectively.

Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn said in a news release that the report will help city officials determine what went well during the incident, and what can be improved moving forward.

“I made the commitment to residents that this would be a very transparent process,” he said. “While it is a painful exercise to go through an independent investigation, it is absolutely vital to make improvements in the future. During an emergency, it’s difficult to understand all of the moving parts that led to how decisions were made”

The incident came to light on Feb. 15 when state officials revealed that high levels of lead and copper had leaked into Sandy’s water system, affecting hundreds of households in the city.

On Feb. 5, a winter storm caused a fluoride pump in the city’s water system to malfunction. That caused a large amount of the chemical to seep into the pipes, corroding the infrastructure and releasing the metal into the water.

The 103-page report, dated May 23, was compiled by the law firm of Parsons Behle and Latimer, which conducted the investigation. It focuses solely on the actions of Sandy City between February 5, when the fluoride pump malfunctioned, and February 20, when Ward was placed on leave.

It notes that investigators discovered “several miscommunications or misunderstandings” that took place during the incident, which in part caused residents to be dissatisfied with the city’s communication.

"Sandy could have and should have identified, with more specificity and speed, who was impacted by the fluoride overfeed," the report states. "Sandy could have and should have communicated more information to impacted residents earlier in the event."

The investigation included interviews with nine Sandy City officials, including Ward, according to the report. The law firm also reviewed thousands of documents, social media posts and news articles, the report states.

The report did not include interviews with Marie Owens, the director of the Division of Drinking Water within Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality. Efforts to interview her were unsuccessful, according to the report.

Owens was involved in monitoring Sandy’s response to the fluoride release, and her department issued a violation notice to the city, according to the report.

Efforts to interview the person who first reported a problem with his drinking water also were unsuccessful, the report states.

In the week following the Feb. 5 fluoride pump malfunction, Division of Drinking Water officials urged Sandy City to speed up water sample testing that would reveal the extent of the copper and lead contamination.

About 24 homes were notified of the fluoride overfeed on Feb. 7, the report notes. But it wasn’t until Feb. 15 that the state revealed the copper and lead contamination to the public.

City officials could have told more residents in a larger area not to drink the water until their home systems had been completely flushed, the report states. If that had been done, it “would have alleviated many of the harmful impacts,” according to the report.

Some unspecified city employees reported that their rationale for not reporting the fluoride issue was to avoid a “panic,” but that was not warranted, the report concludes.

Ward pushed for a media announcement on Feb. 13, when he learned that the impacted area was larger than previously believed, according to the report. However, several other city officials pushed back, and ultimately the city did not put out a release, the report states.

Ward did not activate the proper protocol outlined in Sandy’s emergency response policy that is required for this type of incident, according to the report.

Sandy could have and should have identified, with more specificity and speed, who was impacted by the fluoride overfeed.

–Investigative report

However, it notes that investigators believe Ward did his best to serve the residents of Sandy, and that he “generally conveyed thoughtfulness about his decisions, provided reasoning for those decisions and accepted responsibility for (the actions of the public utilities department).”

“Ward candidly acknowledged that, in hindsight, some decisions could have been made differently and better,” the report states. “Our investigation did not reveal that Ward hid information from the public or that he acted in any way in bad faith.”

In Sandy City’s news release Thursday, Ward said he was eager to return to his position.

“I am looking forward to getting back to work and serving the residents of Sandy,” he said. “There were a lot of lessons learned from this event but I am committed to applying all of those lessons to improving the department services and our communication with residents.”

In the release, Bradburn said he believes the report reveals that protecting the health of Sandy residents, and providing transparency to them, was of utmost importance for Ward throughout his decision-making process.

“We are glad to have Tom Ward back directing the Public Utilities Department,” Bradburn said. “The report clearly states that mistakes in communication were made but his department’s prompt response to the fluoride overfeed mitigated the impact on residents. It is easy to look back at an event with hindsight and want to make different decisions but I believe Tom made the best choices with the information he had at the time.”

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