Today we learned that Salem's water is still unsafe to drink for young children, pregnant women, dialysis patients, and other people with compromised immune systems.
But there's a lot still left to learn about how City and State officials botched their response to last Saturday's test results showing unsafe levels of toxic algae in the water system of Salem and other municipalities sharing that system.
(1) Why the four-day delay in alerting people about the problem? I talked about this in an earlier post, "Salem-area water safety alert could have been handled better." Mayor Chuck Bennett, who is out of the country, weighed in on this in a Facebook post shared in a Statesman Journal story.
On Thursday, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett told the Statesman Journal he did not OK the decision to delay alerting the public and does not agree with it.
"I wasn’t contacted about the advisory and I don’t agree with delaying it once you know the situation," Bennett said in a Facebook message from Wales.
So the Big Question is, who did OK the four-day delay in alerting the public? Likely it was City Manager Steve Powers and/or Public Works Director Peter Fernandez. Yesterday I emailed them:
Steve and Peter, after reading the following Statesman Journal story, I’d like to ask each of you, “Did you know on Saturday, May 26 about the positive toxic algae results that were made available to City of Salem staff on that day?”
At the moment they have indeed ignored my questions, so I'm planning to file a public records request for documents, emails, text messages, and such relating to the City of Salem's decision to delay notifying residents that unsafe levels of toxic algae were in the City water system.
I'm profoundly disturbed by the four day delay in letting vulnerable people -- those on kidney dialysis, with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, children under six -- know that Salem's tap water contained dangerous toxins.
I find the argument totally unpersuasive that because healthy adults and children over six could supposedly drink the water for ten days without much or any harm, that made it OK to put off a general alert to residents of Salem. City Manager Powers and Public Works Director Fernandez are supposed to be dedicated to keeping all of the people in this town safe.
Instead they dropped the water alert ball when they should have been running with it. This was a massive dereliction of duty. If Mayor Bennett and other members of the City Council let this slide, they're almost as irresponsible as Powers and Fernandez were.
(2) What are the exact levels of toxins in Salem water? I haven't even able to find out. I've emailed Jonathan Bach and Lauren Hernandez, who wrote the Statesman Journal story about water test results remaining above safe levels, asking if they have the numeric test results. Haven't heard back from them so far.
I've also emailed Kenny Larson, the City of Salem communications director, but I've gotten no response from him either.
Not telling the public what the test results are is a major failure in transparency. How can we be sure that Salem water actually is safe for most people to drink, as City officials are claiming, without knowing the current level of toxins? It's like a doctor telling you, "Your cholesterol is too high," without letting you know what your cholesterol level is.
This whole affair, which naturally I'm tempted to call Salem's "Watergate" (guess I just gave in to that temptation), has been marked by an unhealthy degree of stonewalling, patronizing, and communication failures by both City and State officials.
It seems like they don't trust people to make informed decisions about whether to drink Salem's water, so they're only doling out information reluctantly. Mayor Bennett tried to put as positive a spin as possible on this in another quote from the above-mentioned Statesman Journal story:
The mayor also pointed to a Wednesday press conference at City Hall where city officials attempted to answer questions about the water advisory. "The staff held a press conference and were not prepared for some of the questions asked," Bennett said.
Well, a more likely reason for their failed attempt to answer questions about the water advisory is that City officials are trying to hide their mistakes.
I think City Manager Powers and Public Works Director Fernandez should be fired or severely disciplined if, as I suspect will be the case, they knew about the elevated toxic algae test results last Saturday, and chose to delay altering the public until late Tuesday.
(3) How valid is the "10 day exposure period" claim? City officials are claiming that it is OK for most people to drink Salem water because they haven't yet reached the 10 day exposure period. Here's what was said about this in a Statesman Journal story about the effect on pregnant women and nursing mothers:
City officials said they wanted to be proactive by warning people within the 10-day exposure window. The 10-day level was developed by the EPA to determine the lowest level exposure that produces adverse effects. After factoring in different "uncertainty" factors like varying weights and ages, the 10-day advisory level is set.
Once the 10-day mark is reached, that's when the probability of health issues increases.
Here's some problems with this rather cavalier approach to telling people it is all right to drink Salem water for 10 days.
First, without knowing the exact numeric test results, which so far City officials haven't been willing to share, there's no way to tell how dangerous the levels of toxic algae are. I did some Googling today and found an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) document about harmful algal toxins.
Here's two screenshots, the later showing the levels Oregon has set for drinking water systems:
Knowing what the Salem test results were, numerically, would help citizens understand how close the levels in the water system were to the guidance values shown above.
I can't understand why City officials have failed to provide this information. It seems to me that they're more concerned about public relations "spin," focusing on the supposed lack of risk to those in the Adult range over a 10-day period, rather than the immediate risk to young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.
The City of Salem's web page about the water advisory isn't exactly crystal clear about who should, and shouldn't, drink water from the tap.
It says at the top of the page that it is safe for healthy children over six and healthy adults to drink tap water. However, "healthy" isn't defined.
Farther down the page there's ambiguous advice. Don't drink tap water if you are part of the groups mentioned, "or have other sensitivity concerns." Well, most people would be concerned and sensitive about drinking water containing toxic algae.
And the next item simply says that bottled water should be used for drinking, and other common uses. So does this advice apply to everyone, or to only the people mentioned in the preceding item? Hard to tell, which helps explain why so many people in Salem aren't taking chances, and are using bottled water for drinking and cooking.,
Bottom line: City of Salem officials haven't exactly covered themselves with glory, the way they've been handling the water health advisory. Key questions remain unanswered. Hopefully they will be soon.