Anchorage water utility manager sheds light on brief fluoride system shutoff; Assembly continues inquiry

Published: Dec. 17, 2021 at 5:41 PM AKST|Updated: Dec. 17, 2021 at 7:21 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In a statement sent late Friday, the manager of the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility said that his staff have occasionally experienced health impacts from handling fluoride that goes into the city’s water, but that they were not reported as official complaints.

The city’s fluoridation system was briefly turned off at the behest of Mayor Dave Bronson on Oct. 1 when he had a tour of the utility’s Eklutna Water Treatment Facility.

After allegations of improper requests surfaced in a blog post by the Alaska Landmine over the weekend, the mayor’s office responded to one of the three claims: that Bronson’s administration had “interfered” with the city’s fluoridation system. In a statement on Tuesday, one day after Anchorage Assembly leadership began an inquiry into the claims, the mayor’s office said Bronson decided to have the system turned off after hearing about employee health complaints when it came to handling the fluoride during the facility visit on Oct. 1.

During an Assembly Enterprise and Utility Oversight Committee meeting on Thursday, Deputy Municipal Manager Kolby Hickel told Assembly members she was aware that the issue was of concern to AWWU General Manager Mark Corsentino since at least August. The mayor’s spokesperson Corey Allen Young has said Corsentino asked the Bronson to authorize turning off the system. It was turned back on about five hours after it was shut off.

Hickel described employee reports of the fluoride burning their eyes and throats and irritating their skin. The union that represents all employees of AWWU, however, said it received no reports or complaints about the handling of fluoride from its members.

Corsentino, who had not responded to an earlier request for comment Friday, released a statement later in the day describing the Oct. 1 visit. In it, he said his staff did share with the Bronson administration that they were experiencing physical effects from handling the chemical.

“AWWU staff did express to the Mayor that the handling of the fluoride chemical used to add to our water is a dangerous hazardous chemical,” Corsentino’s statement reads. “While they are professionals and well trained in handling it, the general sentiment of the operators who work with it would be to prefer not to handle it as they have experienced occasional unreportable health and irritation effects after handling it, even with all the proper OSHA compliant protocols and PPE being used.”

An AWWU spokesperson confirmed in a separate email that “unreportable” health effects means things that are not reportable to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Corsentino wrote that while it is required, adding fluoride to water is “not necessary for safe drinking water” and that other municipalities have halted the practice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fluoridated water is safe, and can help keep teeth strong and prevent cavities.

He also wrote in his statement that there are financial considerations around whether to continue using fluoride in city water.

“From a strategic standpoint, AWWU has an approximate $1M proposed upgrade to rehabilitate the fluoride system in the near future; and, if it was to come up with the community and Assembly for removal, now is the time to bring it up before money is spent for an expensive upgrade,” the statement reads.

Corsentino wrote that, with concurrence from utility staff, Bronson took this into consideration in his decision to have the system turned off.

“We let him know that we have learned that it can be down for hours and days at a time without any code issues because fluoride has a long residual in our water system, which would allow ample time to reverse his decision before any impacts would be towards meeting code,” Corsentino wrote.

Fluoridation of the city’s water is required by municipal code, which states 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.” Charts shared by the administration show that fluoride levels fluctuated slightly during the five hours it was turned off, but the statement from the administration quoted Corsentino as saying there was no “material change” to the fluoride levels during that time.

According to the statement from the mayor’s office and information shared during Thursday’s meeting, once the administration learned fluoridation of city water is actually in city code, they immediately ordered the system to be turned back on. An email sent by Corsentino the day of the facility visit, and obtained by Alaska’s News Source, shows the request for the system to be turned back on.

“At the end of the day, there were no federal, state or local code compliance violations with our water,” Corsentino said in Friday’s statement.

Corsentino wrote that the utility is “neutral in regards to the addition of fluoride” to city water.

“We add it to the water as directed to us by Municipal Code via Assembly Ordinance,” he wrote.

The mayor’s office has said multiple times that the administration was told during the visit that turning off the fluoridation system would not violate any state or federal laws or regulations, or city charter.

“It was stated multiple times during this time that it would not break any state or federal regulations or charter,” Hickel said during Thursday’s committee meeting. “What they failed to mention was that it was actually in code.”

When asked specifically who gave the administration that information, Young told Alaska’s News Source on Friday that it was “AWWU staff.”

“I just had a follow up conversation with the Mayor and the Muni Manager and while they support removing fluoride from our water, they want to ensure it is done legally,” Corsentino’s email from Oct. 1 states. “At your earliest opportunity, please resume adding fluoride to the water systems in Anchorage and Girdwood.”

The administration has also pointed out that the fluoridation system is sometimes turned off for up to several days for routine maintenance, with no adverse affects to the city water supply. In Corsentino’s statement on Friday, he said that the fluoridation system has been down since Thursday due to an equipment failure.

Meanwhile, leadership of the Anchorage Assembly are continuing their inquiry into all three allegations made in the Alaska Landmine post. The other two involve alleged improper requests made by the administration of the Anchorage police chief.

“While the Bronson Administration has responded to the media, Assembly leadership has yet to receive a response to our records requests sent to the Administration on December 12,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in a statement Friday. “Clearly this is a matter of serious public concern and Assembly leadership is committed to following through on our fact-finding inquiry. We need to hear from everyone involved, including the Mayor, so we can reconcile the conflicting reports and learn the truth.”

In the statement, assembly leadership said they have not received a response to their Dec. 12 letters requesting more information about all three allegations made in the Alaska Landmine blog. They had originally asked for that information to be provided by their Dec. 14 assembly meeting.

A letter from the Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt to the assembly on Dec. 14 shows a “partial response” to their request, and states that the municipality completed an email search related to one of the other claims made in the blog — that the administration had made inappropriate requests of the Anchorage police chief. Bergt’s letter states that the municipality found no “responsive documents” to one of the records requests.

Bergt wrote in the letter that completing the rest of the request for the assembly leadership will “take longer than two working days.”

“It is our estimate that your requested records search may be ready by February 1, 2022,” the letter states.

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

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