Details remain scarce about Anchorage mayor briefly turning off fluoride in city’s water

Dave Bronson speaks with the media
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson speaks with journalists after a special Anchorage Assembly meeting on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. The Assembly voted to override Bronson’s veto of its emergency mask ordinance. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration said Thursday that the manager of its water utility raised safety complaints of employees working with fluoride at its Eklutna treatment plant more than a month before Bronson ordered the fluoridation be temporarily shut off. 

Meanwhile, the union that represents those workers continues to maintain that it never heard any concerns, and the manager of Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, Mark Corsentino, says the administration told him he can’t speak to reporters to clarify how the decision was made to stop the fluoride.

“While I’d like to (comment), my orders are to let the mayor’s office continue to handle this,” Corsentino said during a brief phone call on Thursday. “At some point in time, the record will get set straight. I’m happy to talk when I’m free to do so.”

In the days after the Bronson administration announced that the mayor had briefly halted the fluoride — after initially denying it — details remain scarce. The Bronson administration has answered few questions and the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health division says it has no recent fluoride-related complaints from the water plant workers.

Municipal code requires the fluoridation of the city’s water supply. The city has been adding fluoride to its water for decades.

Bronson administration says complaints came in ‘verbal conversations’

During a regularly scheduled Assembly committee meeting on Thursday morning, members questioned City Manager Amy Demboski and Deputy Manager Kolby Hickel about worker safety concerns and the decision to turn off the fluoride.

The mayor’s office had said in a statement Tuesday that Bronson toured the Eklutna water plant on Oct. 1 and heard complaints about fluoride burning workers’ throats and eyes. 

Hickel told the committee on Thursday that Corsentino had asked the city to halt fluoridation of the city’s water in late August in response to worker complaints and to save the city money. Corsentino was appointed to lead the city’s water utility in 2019 by then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. 

“These were verbal conversations,” Hickel told the Assembly members. “And this was one on the August 25 tour, that he [Corsentino] would like to not use it, it would be a cost savings for the company. And that also would be a health safety issue for them as well.”

Hickel said she intended to speak to the mayor about the complaints after the August tour, but didn’t have a chance until the day of the mayor’s tour in October. 

“Between August and October, I never really had a chance to speak with him about it,” she told the Assembly committee. “And so we were actually in the car ride out there and I said that this issue may come up, just wanted you to be aware.”

Bronson made the decision to halt fluoridation during the Oct. 1 tour. The fluoride was turned off for about five hours, according to the mayor’s office. It said it ordered fluoridation turned back on after determining it was required by city code.

Union says it’s never heard of worker complaints

The union that represents the workers who handle the fluoride reiterated Friday that none of its members have raised concerns. 

“I reaffirmed this morning with our members that none of them have or were interested in filing a complaint or a safety report in regard to the fluoride,” said Aaron Plikat, business manager at the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 367, during a phone interview. 

There have also been no recent fluoride-related complaints from Eklutna water plant workers filed to the state, according to Ronald Larson, the chief of safety with the Alaska Occupational Health and Safety division.

Unanswered questions

Amy Demboski, the city manager, did not immediately answer an Assembly member’s question on Thursday about what had been done to improve safety for workers handling fluoride after the alleged complaints. She said she would provide written answers later, though she didn’t specify when.

Logs provided by the Bronson administration show that fluoride levels dipped slightly during the shutoff but remained in normal ranges. Experts say there is no concern about the safety of the city’s water supply and say that fluoridation gets turned off regularly for maintenance, sometimes for several days.

The website Alaska Landmine on Sunday first reported that the mayor had ordered the fluoridation turned off at the plant, along with two other allegations that he improperly pressured the police chief. The Landmine said those events led Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy to announce he would retire in February. 

Bronson’s office initially denied all three claims, but later admitted that the mayor had briefly stopped fluoridation of the city’s water.

On Friday, the Landmine published emails from an Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility staff member that suggested Bronson had been told that turning off the fluoridation system would violate city code.

The email, which hasn’t been independently verified by Alaska Public Media, says Bronson asked about the cost of turning off fluoridation. It doesn’t mention worker safety.

In a phone interview, former Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility manager Brett Jokela said the cost of fluoridation is relatively small for a utility with a budget around $50 million. 

“It’s tens of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of thousands of dollars annually,” he said. 

The mayor’s office has not responded to a request to speak with Corsentino. Demboski also didn’t address an Assembly member’s request to speak with Corsentino at the Assembly’s committee meeting on Thursday. 

The Assembly’s inquiry into the fluoride incident and other allegations published by the Landmine is ongoing.

On Sunday, Assembly leaders asked the Bronson administration for documents related to the fluoride incident as well as the allegations about the administration trying to pressure the police chief. On Tuesday, the administration sent a letter to Assembly leaders saying it would provide the documents requested by Feb. 1. It said that it would update leadership and provide records on an ongoing basis until then.

McCoy has declined requests to speak to reporters. Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for the mayor, said on Tuesday that the mayor’s office is allowing McCoy to speak freely if he chooses to. 

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Editor’s note: This story previously quoted Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant saying that the Assembly had not received a response about the records requested. After publication, the administration provided a copy of an emailed response to the Assembly’s request that had been delivered on Tuesday, Dec. 14 with details about how the administration would respond to the request. Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said that she had missed the email in her inbox.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.