Bronson administration describes employee complaints about handling fluoride for Anchorage’s water, though employee union has received none

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 4:22 PM AKST|Updated: Dec. 17, 2021 at 2:30 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration have described complaints by employees of the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility that handling the fluoride that goes into the city’s water was causing physical symptoms, while the union that represents those employees says no official complaints were ever received.

Bronson directed the fluoridation system for the city’s water to be briefly turned off during an Oct. 1 tour of an Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility facility. Bronson himself did not turn the system off, and the fluoridation was back on about five hours later.

The situation at the facility came to light after allegations about improper requests made by the administration were made in a blog post by the Alaska Landmine over the weekend. On Monday, Anchorage Assembly leadership began an inquiry into the three claims in order to get more information. On Tuesday, the mayor’s office put out a statement confirming the fluoridation system had been turned off and describing the Oct. 1 visit.

The fluoridation of Anchorage’s water is required by city code. That section of code stipulates that “The manager of the utility is authorized and directed to continue supplementing the fluoride content of the water supply, to maintain a level of not more than 1.3 parts per million.”

Bronson’s office has said he decided to have it turned off due to complaints from AWWU employees that handling the fluoride was causing negative physical side effects.

“He was genuinely concerned about employees’ wellbeing,” spokesperson Corey Allen Young said on Tuesday.

During an Assembly Enterprise and Utility Oversight Committee meeting on Thursday, Deputy Municipal Manager Kolby Hickel, who was present at the Oct. 1 visit, said AWWU General Manager Mark Corsentino had made multiple requests between August and October to speak with Bronson about issues employees were having with fluoride. It was also Corsentino who asked Bronson to turn off the fluoridation system during the Oct. 1 visit, Young has said.

“They made it very clear to me that this chemical, even with the proper PPE on, it burned their eyes, it burned their throats, it irritated their skin and it’s something that they don’t like to deal with,” Hickel said of the facility visit.

However, the union that represents all employees of the utility told Alaska’s News Source on Wednesday that they had not received any reports or complaints from its members regarding the handling of fluoride.

“These members are very experienced, well-trained, long-term employees,” wrote Business Manager Aaron Plikat of UA Local 367 Plumbers & Steamfitters on Wednesday. “It was surprising for us to hear that comments regarding safety were made. I’m confident had there been a complaint made — to either the union or the management of AWWU — it would have been promptly addressed.”

During the Thursday committee meeting, assembly member Forrest Dunbar asked the administration whether there was any documentation of complaints by employees or if there had been discussions with Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the irritation issue.

Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said she would research that and get back to the assembly. Assembly member Crystal Kennedy asked for details about the kinds of safety protocols that have to be followed by AWWU employees when handling fluoride. Demboski said she would get the assembly the safety protocols.

The administration has said Bronson was told turning off the fluoridation system would not violate any laws, and that the administration later discovered that it in fact is against city code.

“It was stated multiple times during this time that it would not break any state or federal regulations or charter,” Hickel said of the Oct. 1 visit. “What they failed to mention was that it was actually in code.”

She said once it was discovered that city code requires fluoridation of Anchorage water, the mayor and Demboski immediately ordered that the system be turned back on. The administration has also pointed out that the fluoridation system is sometimes turned off for days at a time for routine maintenance.

There was no “significant or measurable diminishment” of the level of fluoride in Anchorage’s water as a result of it being briefly turned off, Demboski said in the Thursday meeting.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to the mayor’s office trying to clarify who it was that told the administration no laws would be broken if the fluoride was turned off, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Alaska’s News Source also reached out to assembly leadership to ask about the status of their inquiry into the allegations made by the Alaska Landmine this past weekend. The assembly had asked for information and materials about the three claims made by the Landmine to be provided to its members by Tuesday evening.

Clare Ross, a legislative liaison for the assembly, said Thursday by email that the assembly has not yet received an answer from the administration to the letters Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance and Vice Chair Christopher Constant sent seeking more information. She added that the assembly still has “the expectation that they will be answered” along with a few additional questions asked during Thursday’s committee meeting.

“While some new information has come up through media reporting over the past few days, it is critical for the Assembly to have official statements and records to be able to take productive action on the issue,” Ross wrote.

“While the Administration has responded to the media, Assembly leadership has yet to receive a response from the Administration,” LaFrance said in a statement. “Clearly this is a matter of serious public concern and interest and Assembly leadership is committed to the fact finding process so we can understand why and how this happened. The idea that the Administration may be engaging in activities that interfere with the law is very worrisome.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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