This image shows the area (in red) that was affected by the city's Aug. 31 "bottled water only" advisory. The city lifted the advisory the following day. [Image courtesy of the City of Moab]

City and state health officials took the phrase “better safe than sorry” to heart last week, after a public works employee discovered that a contractor had been dumping potentially contaminated water at a construction site on the city’s west side.

The City of Moab, in conjunction with the Southeast Utah Health Department, issued a “bottled water only” order on Thursday, Aug. 31, for certain neighborhoods in the area. Both entities lifted the order the following day, after lab test results found no chemical or bacteriological contaminants in the samples that were collected from the Entrada at Moab townhome construction site, and from water lines in the surrounding area.

By the city’s estimates, the order affected somewhere between 400 to 500 residences – the bulk of them in the Grand Oasis manufactured home community. The order extended to the western end of 400 North, West Hale Drive west of Alberta Court, and Stewart Lane, Apple Lane, River Sands Road, River Sands Drive and Portal Vista Loop.

Moab City Communications Director Lisa Church said the city stands by its decision to issue the ban on the consumption of tap water, based on the potential threat to public health.

“Our position is we’ll always err on the side of caution when it comes to public health, and that’s what we did in this case,” Church said.

But Roger Knight Construction President and owner Roger Knight said he believes that the city’s decision to issue the order was an overreaction.

“Common sense wasn’t prevailing that day,” Knight said.

Church said that the health department considers any water from a facility that has a kitchen or bathroom to be wastewater, and in this case, she said, it wasn’t properly dumped.

According to Church, a city public works employee discovered the problem at about 11 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31.

The employee was reading a water meter that’s connected to a fire hydrant which is providing water to the construction company at the site. City public works officials subsequently determined that the contaminated water came from an RV parked on the construction site that a Roger Knight Construction employee was using.

“He had been dumping the waste from his trailer,” Church said. “There was literally a pool of bright blue water surrounding the base of the fire hydrant.”

Church said the soil in that area was saturated to a depth of about 10 feet, to the underground base of the fire hydrant, leading city officials to believe that the dumping was nothing new.

“They think it had been going on for quite a while,” she said.

Knight acknowledged that one of his employees was dumping “graywater” from a shower onto the ground at the site, but he said that the saturation reached a depth of about 6 feet. That graywater is no different, he said, than water that is used for other everyday purposes, such as a family car wash in a driveway.

But he told the Moab Sun News that sewage from the RV was pumped out properly every couple of weeks, and he disputes the city’s characterization of the water as “blackwater,” or water that is polluted with human, animal or food waste.

“It wasn’t blackwater; it wasn’t sewage,” Knight said.

A public works crew spent much of the afternoon on Aug. 31 excavating and removing the contaminated soil and ultimately hauled away 40 cubic yards of wet soil, according to Church.

Church said city officials were concerned that if the hydrant hadn’t been used correctly, the pooled water could have seeped into the city’s water lines and affected the lower sections of that system, thereby posing a threat to homes in the area.

Knight said it isn’t possible for the water system to be contaminated through the fire hydrant.

“Therefore, this isn’t just erring on the side of caution, but rather jumping to a completely false position,” he said.

He said he thinks that city officials responded like the incident was a “HazMat situation,” when it ultimately amounted to a “whole lot of nothing.”

“It turns out that their samples proved that,” Knight said.

The City of Moab has not yet issued any citations or levied any fines, although city officials are currently reviewing their options, including the possibility of taking legal action, Church said.

Southeast Utah Health Department Director Brady Bradford said his office will seek reimbursement for the time and costs it incurred to test 14 bacteriological samples from water lines in the affected area. At the same time, a private lab will charge the contractor directly for the chemical samples it processed under an expedited schedule, Bradford said.

The department plans to do some routine follow-up work this week, and may take additional samples, he said.

City, community react quickly to incident

The dumping came to light during Church’s first day on the job as the city’s new communications director, and she and other officials acted quickly to raise awareness of the incident, through social media platforms and regular news updates.

City employees and others also went door to door in the affected area, posting flyers about the water order in English and Spanish, and notifying residents. Meanwhile, school administrators at Helen M. Knight Elementary announced the order before students were released for the day.

Church said that residents and businesses throughout the community rose to the occasion, as well.

“We’re very grateful that people were helping each other out and working to get the word out,” Church said.

Among other businesses, the north-end Maverik gas station offered residents free potable water from its lines, while T&H Corner Stop co-owner Deb Hren went even further.

Hren lives just beyond the affected area, but as soon as she heard about the order, she rushed down to City Market and bought cases of bottled water with her own money. She immediately brought them back to her business – even before city officials were able to set up a potable water tank just down the street – and proceeded to give them away.

By the time that the city lifted the order the following afternoon, T&H had handed out 28 cases in all.

Hren would have been well within her rights as a business owner to charge residents for the bottled water, but she said she felt that they shouldn’t be made to pay for another person’s actions.

“It wasn’t the residents’ fault that somebody else did an illegal dump,” she said.

While the handouts came at her own expense, Hren said the giveaway was “no big deal.”

“At times like that, it’s better to be a community member that gives,” she said.

Area residents praise city for response

Orchard Villa resident Sue Booker had just returned from a trip to Lake Powell when Grand County Sheriff’s deputies knocked on her door to inform her of the advisory.

As she waited the next morning for a city employee to fill a plastic jug with potable water, Booker said she believes that the city took the right approach.

“I think that they were very good about informing everyone about this,” she said.

Grand Oasis resident Sherry Medina said she found out about the order when one of her friends tagged her on a Facebook post.

She promptly stocked up on gallons of bottled water at City Market. Yet that precaution was all for naught: While she was at work on Friday, Sept. 1, her daughter phoned her and said that her 4-year-old granddaughter had been drinking tap water.

Medina immediately called Moab Regional Hospital to report the incident.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no,’” she said.

Within the next 90 minutes or so, however, she had some good news: The city had lifted the order.

Days later, Medina said she isn’t concerned if she isn’t reimbursed for the cost of the bottled water she bought.

“If it was a real threat, then maybe, (or) if it ended up being a lot longer, then probably,” she said. “But as it is now, it’s fine, because it never hurts to use bottled water.”

The upside – for her family, at least?

“We have bottled water for a while,” she said.

Contractor whose employee dumped trailer water says officials overreacted

Our position is we’ll always err on the side of caution when it comes to public health, and that’s what we did in this case.