In 2015, the town of Pinedale turned off its sodium silicate water treatment--a type of corrosion control that helps prevent lead contamination from old plumbing. The next year, dangerous levels of lead were found in one residence and at the town’s high school. The treatment has been turned back on, but residents want to know why it was shut off in the first place.
It was a September day, not too long after the start of a new school year, when Sublette County Superintendent Jay Harnack got the news no school official wants to hear. It was the Environmental Protection Agency, informing Harnack that the water students and staff had been drinking at Pinedale High School was contaminated with lead.
“When we found out we had potential issues with water quality, specifically lead, we notified our parents the same day,” said Harnack. Harnack said he understood the urgency of the issue. Lead exposure can cause serious health problems, and children are among the greatest at risk.
Water use was immediately restricted in the building and drinking it has remained off limits, so students and staff depend on bottled water paid for by the school district. Harnack said the timing is poor.
“We are incurring additional costs, in a time when we are looking at reducing budgets,” said Harnack. In November, Harnack said just the bottled water cost the school district $840 dollars.
On top of that the Sublette County School Board voted to hire an environmental consultant. Harnack said the consultant will be tasked with finding the cause of contamination and determining when or if the district can begin to provide water from the building again.
The school district believes the lead contamination was a result of lead solder in the high school building’s old pipes. Usually, that lead soldering isn’t a problem because of the town’s sodium silicate treatment that coats the piping and prevents lead from leaching out into the water.
However, that treatment was turned off in April 2015. Pinedale Town Councilman Tyler Swafford wanted to know why the sodium silicate was shut off.
“I did want an investigation because I wanted the accountability and I guess the responsibility,” said Swafford. “I wanted that to come out.”
At a recent town council meeting, Pinedale Mayor Bob Jones took responsibility for the decision. So now a third-party investigation is unlikely.
“It basically became evident that spending $30,000 on an investigation to find out exactly what Bob just admitted to wasn’t really going to do anything,” said Swafford. “There was no repercussions to come from it.”
Mayor Jones wasn’t always willing to take the blame. During multiple town council meetings Jones said the decision to stop the sodium silicate was made collectively by he and other public works employees, and was part of a larger plan to switch the town’s water treatment exclusively to soda ash -- a much cheaper option.
When Jones took office in 2014, he appointed himself to the position of Public Works Director. Councilman Swafford said that’s not normal procedure.
“So, he’s the guy telling all the public works guys what to do,” said Swafford. “And myself and there’s probably a fairly large contingent in the town of Pinedale that don’t feel that’s right.”
After becoming mayor, Jones also fired various Pinedale employees, including town engineer, Eugene Ninnie.
“They had gone through and essentially pushed everybody out the door,” said Ninnie. “Their solution to solve problems was to fire everybody, and I was the last one in line.”
Pinedale has been working on a overhaul of its water and sewer infrastructure for some time now, and part of that included the addition of a soda ash injection system. But Ninnie said he does not remember any plan to switch exclusively to soda ash. Ninnie also said because so many employees were fired, a lot of Pinedale’s institutional knowledge was lost.
“So if you kick the key people out, and they’re no longer there. It’s almost like book burning, you know, if you burn books you can re-write history,” said Ninnie.
But even if the plan was to switch exclusively to soda ash, shutting off the sodium silicate still violated the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Municipalities are required to notify the Environmental Protection Agency in writing of any upcoming changes in treatment, and those changes must be reviewed and approved before they are implemented. So in October 2016, the EPA sent a violation notice to Pinedale, demanding the town turn its sodium silicate back on immediately. And they did.
Mayor Jones declined Wyoming Public Radio’s request for an interview. Since the violation notice, many residents have asked Mayor Jones to resign, but councilman Swafford doesn’t see that happening.
“He will have to be voted out at the next election, only chance for change there,” said Swafford.
If residents don’t want to wait until May 2018 when the mayor’s term ends, Swafford said the town council could adopt what he calls an accountability ordinance. It’s like a recall ordinance, and would need at least 25 percent of registered voters in Sublette County to sign a petition
“It gives them more power to make a difference, make a change if needed,” said Swafford. “Like I said, if we’re not doing our jobs, then why would we not have to be accountable for that?”
In an upcoming episode of Open Spaces, Wyoming Public Radio will take a closer look at accountability ordinances and what options Wyoming citizens have when they’re unsatisfied with their elected officials.