TDEC Tries to Make Amends After Staffer Compares Filing Water Quality Complaints to Terrorism

But residents and environmentalists say the state agency is still not trying hard enough to actually investigate their complaints

Dwight Green is a resident of tiny Mount Pleasant (pop. 4,591, as of 2011) in central Tennessee, just west of Columbia. He’s fond of where he lives, he says, except for one big problem: When he turns on the tap, he has no idea what will come out.

Sometimes the water is cloudy, he says. Sometimes it has a bad taste. And sometimes it smells.

“Most of the people are afraid to drink the water because it looks funny and it smells funny,” Green says.

The water problems in Mount Pleasant aren’t new. There was a lawsuit in 2010, more issues in 2012, including a boil water notice, and then another boil water notice this January—one that, according to Nashville news reports, made a baby sick and also resulted in the town firing its water-plant operator. So in February, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) submitted around 70 official water-quality complaints from Mount Pleasant residents to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Feeling that TDEC still wasn’t taking its complaints seriously enough, residents and SOCM organizers met with TDEC officials and state Rep. Shelia Butt on May 29. And that’s when the following exchange occurred between TDEC’s Sherwin Smith, the deputy director of the Division of Water Resources, and SOCM’s Brad Wright:

Smith: Let me just throw one thing out there just so you are aware. We take water quality very seriously. Very very seriously. But you need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have basis. Because federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered, under homeland security, an act of terrorism.

Wright: Can you say that again please?

[Inaudible]

Wright: Okay, go ahead.

Smith: What I’m saying is, if you’ve got concerns about your drinking water, that’s very important. We take that very seriously. But under federal regulations, if you make allegations against the public water supply that are unfounded, then that can be considered, under homeland security, an act of terrorism because you’re trying to allege things.

When SOCM first publicized this exchange two weeks ago, the outcry was swift and sharp.

“We certainly understand the concern surrounding the poor choice of words used by Mr. Smith,” wrote TDEC spokesperson Meg Lockhart in a statement on June 21. “He regrets how he communicated in that instance, and while he did try to clarify his intent at the meeting, it does not change the fact that the choice of words was inappropriate.”

On June 24, Lockhart followed up with an additional statement: “In discussing this with Mr. Smith, he indicated that he was thinking about the Patriot Act when he made his incorrect and inflammatory reference concerning terrorism. While the definition of terrorism in that Act is very broad, complaints to this department concerning drinking water quality, valid or not, clearly do not fall within it. Mr. Smith has apologized. Both he and the department regret that this occurred and will make every effort to see that it does not happen again. Mr. Smith’s intent was to prevent panic in the community based on repeated unfounded allegations that the Mount Pleasant drinking water supply is unsafe.”

TDEC has since demoted Smith to his previous position as the unit manager for the State Revolving Fund; his annual salary of $71,904 will also be trimmed, though it’s unclear by how much. But some SOCM members and residents like Green, who was at the May meeting, think these actions don’t go far enough.

“I think he tried to use threats and intimidation, and that won’t fly,” Green says. “You don’t threaten us for complaining about you not doing your job.”

However, the Tennessee Clean Water Network’s executive director, Renee Hoyos, says she thinks the demotion is “appropriate.”

“This doesn’t appear to be something the state is condoning,” Hoyos says. “But we maintain our concerns about [TDEC’s] willingness to enforce state water quality.”

As TCWN reported earlier in the year, TDEC’s enforcement actions on water quality violations have fallen 75 percent since 2007, resulting in just 53 actions across the entire state in 2012. Although those actions were outside those involving municipal water supplies, Hoyos says it’s still worrying.

“If they’re not enforcing here, can we say they’re not enforcing elsewhere? Yeah, probably,” Hoyos says.

In fact, TDEC wouldn’t even know whether any enforcement measures were needed in Mount Pleasant to begin with, because out of those 70 water-quality complaints submitted in February, the agency has yet to test a single residence.

We listened to the recording of the entire May 29 meeting—previously, only audio of the Smith gaffe had been made available—and we encountered the following conversation between TDEC’s David Money, the manager of the Division of Water Supply in the Columbia Environmental Field Office, and Mount Pleasant residents Phillip Anderson and Mickie Cannon:

Money: We can’t just go test everyone’s water just because you want a free water test.

Anderson: Why not? They pay you to do that. Why can’t you? If someone calls you and asks you to come test their water, and you’re getting a check, why can’t you just go out there and test the water?

Money: The tests cost money.

Anderson: Okay.

Cannon: But the problems we’re having, I’m just scared to drink the water.

Money: But we regularly test the water at the water treatment facility. If you’ve got a problem at your house—it smells bad, it looks bad, yeah, we’ll test it. If we come out there and it looks clear as a bell, we’ll do some rudimentary testing we have, but I’m not going to take a sample of someone’s water and send it to the state lab just so, just because you want your water tested.

Anderson: But how many people have called you asking them [inaudible] to come test their water, seriously? How many people are just calling you out of nowhere?

[inaudible]

Money: We don’t, we don’t, but that’s what you guys are trying to insinuate what would happen! We were asking her—she was talking to Sherry—if you have a problem with your water—it smells bad, it looks bad, it tastes bad—tell us, call us, and we’ll come check it out. If it’s just, I’m worried about my water because we had a boil water advisory, you know, six months ago and we had a one a couple of years ago, that’s not a real reason.

Anderson: The way it sounds to me is that you’re trying to discourage people from calling.

Money: No, I’m not! [inaudible] No, I’m not at all.

Anderson and Cannon weren’t the only attendees to voice complaints at the meeting. Residents repeatedly questioned why, if they had submitted water-quality complaints, TDEC had yet to come test their water. For its part, TDEC says it tried to do so. However, the agency’s story keeps changing.

In an e-mailed statement on June 20, Lockhart wrote, “Our policy is that when we receive a complaint, we typically offer to come out to test the water (depending on the circumstances, type of complaint, etc.). Receiving 70 of these specifically regarding the Mt. Pleasant issue we were told more often than not—‘while we have complained, we don’t want you to come out and test our water.’ However, TDEC staff followed up with all 70 complaints and for those homes that were tested, no claims of water quality violations were identified.”

When we asked Lockhart later that same day how many homes were tested, she replied, “[O]ut of the 70 complaints, none were tested. … Staff responded to all of them by calling, leaving messages, etc. Most did not return the call and those complainants that we did make contact with—none said they had current water quality issues that could be observed. Only one of the 70 complainants requested staff to conduct a site visit. That complainant failed to keep the appointment and would not return subsequent phone calls.”

On June 21, Lockhart sent another statement, saying, “We have offered to test the drinking water in private homes of anyone who wishes, and called 70 people who submitted water quality complaint forms collected by SOCM to try and arrange sampling. To date, none have wished for us to do that sampling. That offer still stands. If anyone in Mt. Pleasant wishes to have the drinking water from their tap sampled, TDEC will do so.” On June 24, Lockhart repeated the previous statement.

Then, on July 2, Lockhart wrote, “We have offered to test the drinking water in private homes of anyone who wishes, and attempted to contact 70 people who submitted water quality complaint forms collected by SOCM to determine if they were currently experiencing water quality problems. None of the citizens contacted were currently experiencing issues and were encouraged to promptly contact us should a problem arise. Since receiving those complaints, no one has contacted us regarding water quality issues or requested for us to conduct water sampling in their homes.”

It remains unclear how truthful TDEC is being. Green, for one, says he was never contacted by TDEC after submitting his complaint. If the agency did call him, he says, then it didn’t leave a voicemail. And in a June 29 article in the Columbia Daily Herald, Lockhart is quoted saying, “Did we get 70 people on the phone or in person? Probably not, but we reached out to every single one is my understanding … We want to move forward. If there is an issue—let’s find a resolution.”

SOCM, on the other hand, does not find TDEC’s effort to investigate the complaint forms to be sufficient, noting that almost every person that spoke with a TDEC representative voiced concerns about the smell and appearance of their water—with no action being taken.

“Many told the TDEC staff person that they do not drink the water,” says Casey Self, SOCM’s communications director. “Many used the words ‘foamy,’ ‘orange,’ ‘funny taste,’ ‘chlorine smell,’ etc. However, because they said the water looked fine on the day they were called, the report states ‘no problems today.’ We think this is insufficient follow-up on TDEC’s part.”

When TDEC finally did take water samples in Mount Pleasant last week, inviting a Daily Herald reporter to tag along, the agency didn’t notify SOCM of the testing, nor did they test any one of the 70 residences that had submitted complaints, choosing instead 20 other sites along the water lines.

“TDEC is not taking care of business,” Green says.

Mount Pleasant City Manager Michelle Williams says the complaints are probably all due to problems with people’s individual plumbing.

“There is no water-quality issue,” Williams says. “There has never been a water-quality issue.”

Yet when asked about the fired water-plant operator, Williams refused to comment. She has also accused SOCM of making “fraudulent” claims and has threatened legal action against the group. (When asked about that, she also refused to comment and ended the interview.) But Williams claims any Mount Pleasant resident who wants a water-quality test can get one from the city—all they have to do is ask.

Self says that given the city's past issues, residents are reluctant to approach it for testing, which is why they turned to TDEC in the first place.

"People are very suspicious of city officials," Self says.

TDEC released the results of the 20 sites sampled on Tuesday, and all were reported as negative for total coliform and E. coli.

“Mt. Pleasant’s drinking water is safe,” Lockhart says in a press release [emphasis hers].

But the minimal testing is unlikely to quell the concerns of residents who have had water-quality issues in the past. Self says the battle won’t be done until everyone stops worrying about their drinking water.

“We would like to stress that these water-quality complaints long preceded the boil notices,” Self says. “It should be noted that TDEC’s minimal response to the water-complaint forms have in no way provided Mount Pleasant residents any economic or environmental relief and that the residents have continuously been told that they have to absorb the high rates and poor quality of water based on mistakes made by past city officials.”

Meanwhile, the city of Mount Pleasant just raised property taxes—with water rates, already some of the highest in the state, soon to follow. The reason for the increase? A new $9 million water-treatment plant.

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