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Minimal notices sent, but water quality excuses vary

Staff writer

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Although no one would give straight answers to direct questions, the Record finally has confirmed that Marion did what minimally was necessary to let customers know about lapses in testing of water quality.

It also has obtained a promise from a key state official to investigate apparent irregularities in explanations offered for testing lapses even if the water system, at present, is rated as being in compliance.

For many years, the city provided copies of its water plant’s annual Consumer Confidence Report in utility bills sent to customers each June.

Sometimes, when there were no problems, it sent only a web address linking to where the report was stored.

This year, despite five “major” testing violations listed in the report, it did not include any reference to it in its June bills, and staff apparently did not notify the mayor or city council.

This prompted the Record to begin asking questions. However, rather than answer them, officials spent more than a week insisting everything was OK and became defensive, accusatory, or prone to offering contradictory or unresponsive explanations to direct questions.

The Record eventually was able to determine that the city had included, in small type on bills sent a month earlier than usual, an Internet address where a copy of the report could be found.

Under Kansas Department of Health and Environment standards, that’s the minimum amount of notification the city was required to give.

The notification is indeed minimal. According to the Census Bureau, as many as one in three Marion households do not have access or inclination to look up Internet addresses on home computers. Even fewer probably saw the tiny notice on bills a month earlier than expected.

Despite repeated questioning for more than a week, no city official ever offered that the city had done this.

Instead, they angrily lashed out at the newspaper, insisting that the city had satisfied all requirements but declining to give specifics as to how.

As late as Monday night, when shown a KDHE form on which the city was required to list how it had notified residents, Mayor Mike Powers refused to look at it or to identify which option the city had selected.

It was only after piecing together bits of comments he and other officials made in defending the safety of Marion’s water supply that the Record was able to determine that notification standards had been minimally met.

Merely posting the report on the city’s website was insufficient, according to those regulations. Ironically, when checking the link on the city website Tuesday night, Record reporters received a “forbidden” error rather than the report.

Refusals to answer direct questions or to answer them with unrelated claims marked much of the Record’s investigation of whether Marion had tried to cover up testing problems.

Marion’s annual Consumer Confidence Report, drafted by the state, listed the city as having committed five “major” testing errors last year. Four involved failing to check for potentially toxic bromates for four consecutive months last summer.

It’s unlikely that bromates, though potentially damaging, caused any health problems, even if no one tested for them. But failing to test still was listed by the state as a “major” violation.

In the course of a multi-week investigation by the Record, different city officials offered radically different explanations for the lapse in testing:

  • The city had done the tests, but results were turned in a day late and therefore weren’t acknowledged.
  • The city had not received required supplies from a vendor to be able to conduct the tests, and a new vendor was found.
  • Test samples were delayed in shipping, and a new shipping method was found to correct this problem.
  • The city wasn’t required to perform the tests because it had temporarily discontinued using disinfecting ozone, which can result in formation of bromates, after its ozone injectors failed.

Several contended that they did not know what happened because they were not in their current jobs and the city had no certified water plant operator at the time of the lapses.

It still is not known — although the Record is continuing to ask — exactly when ozone was not being used and, therefore, when monthly tests might not have been required.

What is known is that Marion failed to test for bromates in far more than just four months since July 2022.

The pattern of missing tests has continued this year, when for three consecutive times two tests have been conducted one month, followed by no tests the next.

Chain-of-custody, billing, and analytical documents obtained by the Record under the Kansas Open Records Act indicate that monthly tests were not performed in 13 of the 24 months since July 2022.

According to the documents, no tests were performed for nine months last year — January through August and November — nor were any performed in November of 2022 or February, April, or June of this year.

More than one test was performed in July 2022, October 2023, and January, March, and May of this year.

The documents, requested last week, were obtained Monday after the Record paid $155.90 — what an open government advocate said smacked of being a retaliatory fee — for what the city claimed were six hours of research to provide the 23 pages.

An unsigned, handwritten Post-it note attached to the documents released Monday states, “No testing done for bromates during the 1st part of 2023 due to the ozone system not working.”

Powers did not make this point during a lengthy attempt at Monday night’s city council meeting to challenge Record coverage of the issue a week before.

Nor were any such references made in special notices the state required the city to issue about lack of testing. Those notices seem to blame lack of testing supplies or delays in sample delivery.

However, the city’s current water plant supervisor, who was not with the city when the testing lapses on the Consumer Confidence Report were noted, cited the ozone excuse Monday night.

Marion uses chlorine and ozone to disinfect water drawn from Marion Reservoir.

Ozone was added nearly 20 years ago. At the time, officials said it was in response to outbreaks of blue-green algae in the reservoir because ozone is more effective than chlorine in removing toxins released by blue-green algae when they die.

Officials recently have questioned whether that’s the true role ozone plays in Marion’s water treatment. However, when Marion operated with only chlorine as its primary disinfectant in the 2000s, it was forced to obtain water from sources other than the reservoir during blue-green algae outbreaks.

If the city operated its plant without ozone during the first part of 2023, it took water from the reservoir during blue-green algae warnings. The reservoir was under algae warnings from May 17 to July 9.

After multiple attempts to reach state officials, the Record late Tuesday was able to reach Cathy Tucker-Vogel, public water supply section chief for KDHE.

She briefly reviewed evidence the Record had obtained under the Open Records Act and said she would investigate further. She vowed to get back to the Record on Thursday, after the state Juneteenth holiday.

An array of city officials — the mayor, administrator, clerk, public works director, and water plant operator — all were queried by email early Tuesday morning with the same set of clarifying questions.

None of them responded as of press time Tuesday night.

Last modified June 21, 2024

 

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