Monday night, the Steelton Borough council learned a hard lesson: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Sharing more information with the public sooner might have spared them such an unpleasant outbreak of political outrage.
Residents were steamed that they had not found out earlier that the local water treatment plant had been busted for filing false reports, failed monitoring, and inadequate treatment for a parasite. All told, the Steelton Authority has agreed to pay the state ,200 in fines for the violations and dismissed the operator responsible for the false reports.
Fired up by the news, residents turned Monday s council meeting into a fruitless shouting match, which is unfortunate. However, they have good reason to be upset. Though the state is monitoring things closely to make sure Steelton s water is now safe to drink, residents have legitimate questions about what they were drinking last year, when the violations took place.
Steelton s water plant failed to provide adequate disinfection of Giardia lamblia, on at least 24 days, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. That news has led several residents to believe that the inadequately treated water made them, or others, sick.
It s not clear how Mayor Tom Acri can offer the reassurance that nothing was ever wrong with our water. DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said the agency got no complaints about Steelton s water last year. But no complaints does not mean no problems with the water. Falsifying or failing to file reports ruins the evidence needed to assure the public its water is safe.
Monday night was not the Steelton council s finest hour. President Jeffrey Wright seemed to be passing the buck when he told residents the water authority is a legally separate entity that was slow to inform the council. However, he admitted he found out about the issues at the water plant at least five weeks earlier, in late February.
One council member told the crowd she wasn t told about the water troubles, which prompted a colleague to accuse her of lying. Another council member seemed to poo-pooh the suffering giardia can inflict. While she is correct that it is treatable, until treatment kicks in, it can cause debilitating gastrointestinal distress. Mayor Acri, who is on the water authority board, cut off media interviews when pressed for answers he apparently preferred not to give.
It would take an expensive epidemiological study to see if Steelton s water woes caused health problems, and even then the results, gathered so long after the fact, might be inconclusive. But the way things were run at the water plant, and how authorities handled information about the problems, definitely caused casualties. It damaged Steelton residents trust in their officials and leaves them questioning their government s ability to deliver the most basic of services, making sure they have clean water to drink.
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