While many questions remain unanswered, information continues to emerge surrounding Mayor Dave Bronson’s decision to briefly shut off fluoridation of Anchorage’s water supply.
The incident was first made public by the Alaska Landmine last weekend in an article citing anonymous sources. After initially denying the incident occurred, the mayor’s office issued a statement Tuesday confirming that it did, in fact, happen on Oct. 1.
Members of the Anchorage Assembly said they were shocked by Bronson’s decision to shut off fluoridation and have questioned whether the mayor broke city code at the water plant that day.
The mayor’s office said in the Tuesday statement that Bronson made the decision after hearing workplace safety and health concerns from Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility staff during an Oct. 1 tour of the Eklutna Water Treatment Plant.
Also, the statement said, “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.” According to the mayor’s office, Bronson directed it to be turned back on after he “determined Municipal Code requires the fluoridation of Anchorage’s water supply.”
On Friday, an email obtained and first made public by the Alaska Landmine, and then released to the Daily News via a public records request, showed that AWWU staff had told the mayor that city law directs the fluoridation of water, apparently contradicting the mayor’s statement about what happened.
“It was explained to Mayor Bronson that Municipal Charter directs the AWWU water plants to dose fluoride, and it was not a compliance issue with ADEC (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation),” said the email, sent on Oct. 1 among Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility officials and workers.
(City code, not the city’s charter, stipulates that Anchorage’s water supply must be fluoridated.)
A second email obtained by the Daily News was sent from AWWU’s general manager, Mark Corsentino, to some AWWU staff and the deputy municipal manager a little over an hour later.
“I just had a follow up conversation with the Mayor and the Muni Manager and while they support removing fluoride from our water, they want to ensure it is done legally. At your earliest opportunity, please resume adding fluoride to the water systems in Anchorage and Girdwood,” Corsentino wrote in the email.
The emails drew questions from Assembly leadership about whether the mayor’s office had again misled the public.
“In reading these emails, it is clear that there’s a difference between the Mayor’s account of events and what AWWU employees are reporting,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said in a statement Friday. “Ensuring that our drinking water meets municipal regulations and code requirements is critical to the health and safety of our community. It is imperative that we get to the bottom of this so we can understand why and how this happened, and safeguard against this type of interference in the future.”
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in an interview Friday after the emails were released that the public is owed an explanation, saying it appeared the city broke municipal code at the water plant that day.
“The administration needs to respond and explain why they have provided different accounts regarding fluoride being turned off,” LaFrance said. “... What actually happened on that day?”
On Friday evening, AWWU released a lengthy statement on what was communicated between AWWU staff and the mayor, nearly a week after the mayor’s office initially denied that the incident occurred.
“We let him know the system is oftentimes down and offline for corrective and preventative maintenance reasons,” said the statement from Corsentino. “We let him know that we have learned that it can be down for hours and days at a time without any code issues because fluoride has a long residual in our water system, which would allow ample time to reverse his decision before any impacts would be towards meeting code.”
“At the end of the day, there were no federal, state or local code compliance violations with our water,” Corsentino said.
Unanswered questions on worker safety concerns
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.
Other than the statement sent Friday evening, Corsentino has not responded to the Daily News’ requests for comment. He told Alaska Public Media this week that his “orders are to let the mayor’s office continue to handle this.”
The mayor had cited worker safety concerns a key reason driving his decision to shut off the fluoride. In the statement Tuesday, the mayor’s office said “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.”
Following that statement, the union representing AWWU workers said that it received no safety complaints, that the workers are experienced, well-trained, long-term employees, and that it was surprised by what the mayor’s office said.
The emails obtained via the records request Friday make no mention of worker safety concerns related to fluoride. However, the Friday AWWU statement said worker safety and fluoride was discussed during the mayor’s visit.
“The Mayor’s staff and AWWU’s staff had an open and healthy discussion about fluoride during his plant tour,” Corsentino said in the statement. “AWWU staff did express to the Mayor that the handling of the fluoride chemical used to add to our water is a dangerous hazardous chemical. While they are professionals and well trained in handling it, the general sentiment of the operators who work with it would be to prefer not to handle it as they have experienced occasional unreportable health and irritation effects after handling it, even with all the proper OSHA compliant protocols and PPE being used.”
Fluoride in drinking water is effective, safe and reduces and promotes oral health, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fluoride’s safety has 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.
It remains unknown how long workers may have experienced issues or why they might have occurred if safety measures were followed. It’s also unclear why the safety concerns were given directly to the mayor rather than through a union’s complaint process, or whether any complaints have been lodged with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
It’s also not clear why the mayor chose to shut down fluoridation immediately.
Costs and public health
While worker safety concerns aren’t raised in the Oct. 1 emails that were obtained via a records request Friday, one email does describe the mayor choosing to shut down fluoridation after hearing it would save the city money, which another city official acknowledged this week.
“He also asked about the total annual expense of dosing fluoride, we showed it would be a significant cost savings to stop dosing fluoride when considering all cost (chemical, maintenance, and labor). At that point Mayor Bronson then directed water treatment staff at all AWWU water plants that dose fluoride to take fluoride systems offline, and he would take up the conversation with the Assembly,” Brad Stitzel, superintendent of the Eklutna Water Treatment Plant, wrote in an email.
On Thursday during an Assembly committee meeting, Deputy Municipal Manager Kolby Hickel told members that Corsentino told her several times that ending fluoridation would be a health improvement for workers and would save the city money.
On its website, the CDC describes fluoridation as “one of the most cost-effective, equitable, and safe measures communities can take to prevent cavities and improve oral health.”
The federal agency cites one nationwide study concluding that “community water fluoridation programs have been estimated to provide nearly $6.5 billion dollars a year in net cost savings by averting direct dental treatment costs (tooth restorations and extractions) and indirect costs (losses of productivity and follow-up treatment).”
On Friday afternoon, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski discussed the incident on conservative radio host Mike Porcaro’s talk show on 650 AM KENI.
“Oh, ‘fluoride-gate,’ here we go. Well, it’s really not super complicated,” Demboski said.
She put responsibility for the request to stop the fluoridation system on Corsentino.
“He’s the one who asked the mayor to turn it off. He was the one who was explaining to the mayor that the staff had complaints about itchy eyes, burning eyes and coughing and that kinda stuff,” Demboski said.
“Right after the tour I called Mr. Corsentino and I had him on the phone, and I had him on speaker actually and there were about five people in the room, and I asked him, just point blank, ‘Did you ask the mayor to turn this off?’ His answer was ‘yes.’ I asked him if he advised the mayor of the code, his answer was ‘no,’ ” Demboski said.
Demboski also categorically denied any laws had been broken or malfeasance committed by the administration, and blamed recent coverage of the issue on personal animus by Assembly members and “fake news” from local media.
“This Assembly, they really have, like, a Bronson crush,” Demboski said. “I recognize that the Assembly is having a really hard time accepting the fact that they’re not nine little mayors.”
Daily News reporters Kyle Hopkins and Zachariah Hughes contributed.