Johnson Utilities, the water provider for the San Tan Valley area of northeastern Pinal County, was found to have violated multiple environmental regulations in regard to its handling of an August E.coli scare, according to a notice given to the company by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality on Oct. 9.
According to the notice, the company poorly maintained its facilities, did not take proper measures to notify the public of a possible E.coli contamination, contradicted itself on when bacteria was found, failed to properly monitor the situation after contamination was found and did not provide an emergency plan for the community.
While Johnson Utilities has one month after it received the violation notice to contest the findings in court, if a judge finds the company guilty, the penalty is a fine of up to $10,000 per violation for each day it broke the rules.
ADEQ may also bring the case to the Attorney General for an additional $500 fine per violation and a temporary or permanent shutdown of the facilities, according to ADEQ.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency public notice rules, water suppliers have 24 hours to notify people who may drink the water in an emergency situation. The supplier must use media outlets, post notice in public places or deliver notice to customers personally. The rules also require the supplier to describe the violation, explain potential health effects, explain what is being done to correct the problem, offer actions consumers can take to protect themselves, predict when the situation will be resolved and provide encouragement for broader distribution of the notice.
But conflicting reports — including two from Johnson Utilities itself and another from ADEQ — show that the public may not have been properly notified for at least three days.
In an August statement to the public, Johnson Utilities, which provides water to approximately 20,000 homes and 60,000 people, said it first became aware of a potential problem on Aug. 18 following routine sampling.
The statement said the company believed the positive E.coli results “to be false, since they contradicted the results of our previous sampling.”
The statement added that “after consulting with (ADEQ), Johnson Utilities issued a drinking water warning in compliance with drinking water rules.”
But according to the EPA, it received information from Johnson Utilities that it found bacteria samples in the water on Aug. 16, found E.coli during a retest on Aug. 18, found bacteria again on Aug. 20 and issued a boil advisory to the Florence Unified School District, which then notified parents and media, on Aug. 22.
An ADEQ review of the matter — which led to an investigation — presented a different timeline, however.
The investigation determined that the first time Johnson Utilities found bacteria, including E.coli, in the water was on Aug. 13 — three days before the date reported to the EPA and five days before the date given to the public.
The investigation also found that the water was not resampled, as is required by the EPA. According to the investigation, Johnson Utilities also did not follow its own emergency plan that was approved by ADEQ, failing to notify the media of the possible contamination or issue a public notice.
“Johnson Utilities sent ADEQ evidence that the media was contacted through a subcontractor, not the responsible party. There was no reference to a public notice in the email that was sent and there was no follow-up contact information offered,” the ADEQ violation notice said.
Before ADEQ released its findings, however, Johnson Utilities spokesperson David Weissman said the utility company claimed that the possible contamination was a false alarm and didn’t require notification.
When contacted for comment after the company received notice of the violations, Weissman provided a statement from Johnson Utiltities, arguing that ADEQ did not fully understand the August events and expressed optimism that ADEQ would drop all sanctions after further discussion with the company.
“Johnson Utilities worked closely with ADEQ on the approval of the proper notification and notified our customers through a variety of newspapers, television and radio stations, print media, and the web in the time frame required by the agency,” the statement said.
Michelle is a Senior studying print and multimedia journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org