I'm a fan of strangeness. But there's pleasing kinds of strange and disturbing kinds of strange.
Watching yesterday's special City Council meeting about Salem's toxic algae water crisis via a Facebook feed gave me the latter sorts of feelings...disturbing.
Here's five things that struck me as strange:
(1) That the meeting needed to happen at all. The City Council just had a meeting on Tuesday. But City of Salem officials botched their response to dangerous levels of toxic algae cyanotoxins in the water supply so badly, a special meeting on Friday was necessary.
This wasn't exactly the biggest emergency Salem might face.
It pales in comparison to, say, the next Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, a massive blizzard exacerbated by global climate change, or a zombie apocalypse (least likely, hopefully). So if City staff can't handle something fairly small, it doesn't make me confident they can handle something big.
(2) The City Council was kept in the dark by City officials. City councilors expressed a lot of entirely justified righteous indignation at the fact that City Manager Steve Powers and Public Works Director Peter Fernandez didn't contact them after elevated levels of cyanotoxins were detected on Friday, May 25 (from a sample taken on May 23).
Instead, the councilors learned about a health advisory alert on Tuesday afternoon, May 29, shortly before the alert went out to the general public. City staff met on Friday, May 25, then continued to consult Oregon Health Authority staff, EPA staff, and maybe others through the weekend and up until last Tuesday.
But no City staff thought it would be a good idea to consult the elected officials, Mayor and eight city councilors, who represent the people of Salem. This is a big deal. It shows that the City Manager and Public Works Director believed they're the ones in charge, and there was no need to communicate with elected officials about the toxic algae crisis.
I think it's time for some heads to roll at City Hall (just figuratively, so please don't send me plans for guillotines if you agree),
(3) City officials were fine with not notifying the public about high cyanotoxin levels. Public Works Director Fernandez and other City of Salem staff seemed actually proud that they notified the public on May 29 that a water sample taken on May 23, plus subsequent samples, showed toxin levels warranting a health advisory for vulnerable populations, because even though people were exposed to the cyanotoxins for a week, this was less than a "10-day window" when no ill effects supposedly will occur.
Here's a screenshot of the elevated testing results:
Seven days is 70% of the way to the end of the 10-day window. People have widely varying responses to toxins. There is much that isn't known about the nasty stuff in toxic algae. Oregon Health Authority staff acknowledged that there aren't hard and fast rules about when to issue a health advisory, and this was left up to City of Salem officials to decide when, or whether, an advisory should be issued.
So City Manager Powers and Public Works Director Fernandez gambled with the health of children under six, kidney dialysis patients, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, and other vulnerable populations by allowing these people to drink tap water for seven days after a sample was taken that showed a dangerous level of a cyanotoxin.
By contrast, I watched KGW news last night, which had a story about toxic algae in the Wilsonville water system. Wilsonville notified the public after a single positive test result, and shared the numeric result, which was shown by KGW.
(I recall the result was .34, and the health advisory standard is .3)
This shows that cities committed to openness and transparency are capable of communicating with the public about toxic algae test results in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, Salem isn't one of those cities. Public Works Director Fernandez and City Manager Powers need to be held accountable for putting vulnerable populations and pets at risk.
(4) Pets didn't get the love from City officials that they deserved. Speaking of pets, the water advisory that finally was issued on the afternoon of May 29 said that pets shouldn't drink tap water. But for a week, Salem pets were ingesting water with cyanotoxins.
Many pets are much smaller than children under six, which are considered part of the vulnerable population that was the target of the health advisory. Some Googling showed that a typical Yorkie dog weighs between 3-7 pounds, a cat between 8-10 pounds. Pets are at high risk from drinking cyanotoxins in their water bowls.
My wife volunteers at the Willamette Humane Society. They use well water, fortunately, and have made that water available to pet owners. It's unconscionable that City officials allowed pets and other animals in Salem (think bird baths) to ingest water for a week that contained cyanotoxins.
(5) Numeric test results weren't shared with the public or City Council. Lastly, yesterday (Friday) was the first time citizens or city councilors were able to see the water quality test results that resulted in the health advisory being belatedly issued.
As noted above, Wilsonville released test results after a single test showed an elevated level of toxic algae in the city's water supply. But even after the City of Salem issued a health advisory, no numeric test results were released to the public. Several days ago I asked the City's communications manager, Kenny Larson, for these results, but never got a response.
The public deserved to know what the level of cyanotoxins were that led to the health advisory. It turns out that on several days the level was high enough for a general "adult" health advisory, but apparently one wasn't issued because levels dropped in later water samples.
Doctors are required to tell patients about test results. If they don't they could be held legally liable.
It was totally unacceptable for Salem's City Manager and Public Works Director to withhold the numeric water quality test results from citizens for an entire week. This reflects a general lack of transparency and openness at City Hall, something I'm well aware of from the many public records requests I've had to make.
Today's Statesman Journal has a story about the Wilsonville toxic algae test result. It says:
"We're being abundantly cautious here, and providing information that allows our community members to make an informed decision," said Wilsonville city manager Bryan Cosgrove.
Salem needs to borrow Cosgrove so he can teach Salem's city officials about how to communicate with the public. They did a horrible job this time around.