Anchorage

Mayor Bronson said worker concerns drove decision to briefly shut off fluoride to Anchorage’s water supply, but union says it never received safety complaints

The union representing workers at Anchorage’s water utility said it had received no safety complaints after Mayor Dave Bronson said he temporarily shut off fluoride in the city’s water in October because, he said, some workers told him they were experiencing health issues related to the substance.

“UA Local 367, which represents all the employees of AWWU, has not received any reports or complaints from our members concerning the handling of fluoride for the utility,” said Aaron Plikat, business manager with the union.

Anchorage’s water supply must be fluoridated, according to city code. Bronson temporarily stopped the fluoridation of the city’s water supply as a result of an Oct. 1 visit to Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility’s Eklutna Water Treatment Plant.

A spokesman for Bronson initially denied the incident happened when the Alaska Landmine published allegations about Bronson and his administration over the weekend, including that Bronson shut off fluoridation of the city’s water.

But on Tuesday — a day after Anchorage Assembly leaders began an inquiry into the claims — the mayor’s office released a statement saying that the mayor had decided to shut off fluoridation “to protect the health and safety of AWWU staff.”

“AWWU staff informed the mayor’s team that fluoride burned the eyes and throats of staff who handled it and was a health hazard for employees. Fluoride is considered a hazardous substance that must be handled by trained professionals,” the mayor’s office said.

During an Assembly committee meeting Thursday, the Bronson administration repeated that assertion, and said that leadership at the water utility had been raising the issue for months.

Plikat, business manager for the union representing AWWU workers, said he was surprised to hear that.

“These members are very experienced, well-trained, long-term employees,” Plikat said. “It was surprising for us to hear that comments regarding safety were made. I’m confident had there been a complaint made — to either the union or the management of AWWU — it would have been promptly addressed.”

Bronson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the union’s statement. Since Monday, the mayors office has not responded to several emails with specific questions about the incident, other than providing the statement and a phone call from a spokesman.

Fluoride in drinking water is effective, safe and reduces and controls tooth decay and promotes oral health, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The safety and benefits of fluoride have been well-documented and reviewed comprehensively, the CDC says.

The CDC also recommends that operators of fluoridation systems wear personal protective equipment, including a chemical mask and safety goggles. City code requires that workers who apply the fluoride be state-certified water treatment operators.

The mayor’s office has said that Bronson made the decision after “information was presented to the Mayor’s team that pausing the fluoridation of Anchorage’s water would not violate federal or state law and didn’t violate Municipal Charter.” Later that day, the mayor’s office realized that city code requires the fluoridation of Anchorage’s water supply and told AWWU to resume fluoridation, the mayor’s office said in its statement.

Several Assembly members have said they were flabbergasted by the mayor’s decision to shut off fluoridation.

“It’s difficult to understand how the mayor would not know that is not OK,” Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said. “... And even if he didn’t know that, I still don’t know why he would do it. And I still don’t think we have an answer as to why.”

The mayor’s office provided a lab chart showing that fluoride levels dipped only slightly during the five hours it was shut off and said that it “remained within code requirements at all times on Oct. 1.”

“It’s not illegal to turn off the fluoride for 5 hours,” said Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office.

Fluoridation is routinely shut down for maintenance, the mayor’s office has said.

“I am shocked that the mayor even thought that this is something that was a good idea for him to do,” Assembly member Felix Rivera said. ”I think there’s an appropriate way to address personnel safety issues, if that is in fact what happened. I don’t think turning off the fluoride was the right way to go about that.”

Young has said that AWWU’s general manager, Mark Corsentino, asked the mayor to turn off the fluoride. Corsentino has not responded to emailed questions and a phone call from the Daily News. City code directs AWWU’s manager to “continue supplementing the fluoride content of the water supply to maintain a level of not more than 1.3 parts per million.”

“I think it stretches the bounds of credibility to think that Mr. Corsentino would be OK with something like that,” Rivera said.

Corsentino was initially appointed to the position, an executive appointment that serves at the pleasure of the mayor, by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in 2019. He began working for AWWU in 2007 as a civil engineer, according to AWWU’s website.

On Thursday during a committee meeting, Assembly members questioned Bronson administration officials about shutting off the fluoride.

Deputy municipal manager Kolby Hickel told members that she was present during Bronson’s tour and that AWWU staff turned off the fluoride system.

Hickel said she also did a solo tour of the facility in August. At that tour, Corsentino and others “made it very clear to me that this chemical, even with the proper PPE on, it burned their eyes, it burned their throats, irritated their skin. It is something that they don’t like to deal with,” Hickel said.

Corsentino spoke with her about the issues multiple times between August and the Oct. 1 tour “wanting to get in front of the mayor to discuss possibly not using fluoride,” she said. “... It would be a cost savings, but ultimately it would be a health improvement for his employees.”

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar asked if there had been documentation of employee complaints or discussions with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Municipal Manager Amy Demboski told Dunbar that she would research that.

When Dunbar asked if any of the issues for workers are ongoing or if AWWU had made any changes as a result, Demboski said she will give him responses in writing.

Assembly leadership is continuing with its inquiry about the fluoride and the other allegations, although it has not yet announced the next steps in its process. Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant has said that a fact-finding process “will unfold over the next weeks and months and will be thorough and comprehensive.”

The mayor’s office has not yet provided the Assembly with information and public records related to the fluoride incident and other allegations, which leadership requested the administration provide by Tuesday evening.

The mayor’s office has not responded to a question from the Daily News about whether it will provide the Assembly with the information and records Assembly leaders are seeking.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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