SAN TAN VALLEY –– The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality promised expedited results of its own water samples as Johnson Utilities remained silent — apart from a brief statement posted to its website late Friday — about questions that have arisen over the weekend after ADEQ announced nitrate levels higher than federal standards were discovered in water provided by the company.
ADEQ Spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman said results are due Wednesday.
Oppleman said Johnson Utilities representatives contacted ADEQ Monday, and although Oppleman said ADEQ still has not seen evidence of additional testing that proves the nitrate levels are back below federal standards, the instrument the utility company indicated they used was “not an approved method. …They told us that they used this instrument that is not approved for the followup tests that they said they took.”
That prompted ADEQ to take its own samples from the public water system Monday. Though results typically take about a week, Oppleman said ADEQ is working on an expedited schedule to release results Wednesday.
The public health warning issued Friday will remain in effect until ADEQ receives the data.
Despite multiple attempts by PinalCentral to request comment directly from Johnson Utilities, the San Tan Valley company – headquartered in Scottsdale – did not elaborate further than its original statement, which insists, in all capital letters, “OUR WATER IS SAFE.”
The nitrate level was first discovered to be higher than the federal standard several weeks ago; an Oct. 27 sample result and a Nov. 21 sample result found 12 mg/L and 11.4 mg/L, respectively, according to a Friday ADEQ release, which specifies that the maximum level by federal standards is 10 mg/L.
But Johnson Utilities owner and CEO George Johnson said in Friday evening’s statement that the nitrate level found in the “small portion” of the company’s water distribution system “no longer exists today. Our water is under the allowable limits of nitrates and is safe to drink.”
Johnson cited repeat samples done more recently — though he did not specify exactly when — show the levels fall “far below” the federal limit, and “we believe the original samples were not correctly performed or read, and we have sampled twice since then,” referencing results Oppleman said ADEQ never received.
The statement was posted to the company’s Facebook page, where it garnered 70 shares and nearly 50 comments by Monday afternoon. Many commenters requested transparency.
“Johnson Utilities has an ethical responsibility to inform families on their water findings,” commenter Josh Pendergrass said in an email to PinalCentral. “After the first test in October they failed the families and children who bathe and drink this water which could ultimately kill an infant. …It is disgusting that Johnson Utilities chose their ego over the wellbeing of the people who pay for their poor services. George Johnson owes the community a deep apology for the fear that this has caused.
“Unfortunately, with the grave history and reputation this company has evolved, I know this will not happen.”
Nitrates in drinking water can come from natural, industrial or agricultural — including septic systems and runoff — sources, and can vary throughout the year, according to ADEQ’s release.
ADEQ said that although adults and children over six months who are pregnant or have “specific health concerns” may want to contact a doctor following water consumption, they generally can process nitrates.
Infants six months and younger, however, are at risk of serious illness and even death if untreated. Symptoms include shortness of breath and “blue baby syndrome,” which is indicated by blueness of the skin.
The ADEQ release urges parents to seek medical attention “immediately,” as the symptoms can develop rapidly, and health can deteriorate over a period of a few days.
Lola Guzman, a five-year Queen Creek homeowner, said that even with the water filtration system she has in her home, she quickly set up an appointment to take her four-month-old twins to the pediatrician after Friday evening’s warning, even though they appear unaffected.
The Guzmans can thank their water filtration system from Costco for at least some peace of mind, though Guzman acknowledged not every family is as “lucky” as hers in that regard.
“I know I have peace of mind because we have that water filtration system (but) I’m breastfeeding (the twins),” so nitrates could have been passed on to them from her for the past few weeks, she feared. “Aside from my babies, we have dogs that drink the water, too. Is that hurting them?”
She said the utility’s base rate is $100 per month, even if it’s for water that the family is unable to use, and to be on the safe side, she decided to replace her filter — though it isn’t due to be replaced for a few more months — which adds another $80 in unexpected costs, not to mention additional packs of bottled water.
But this isn’t the first incident that has Johnson Utilities customers concerned about the quality of their drinking water. Resident Jamie Morse said aside from some sloppiness on the company’s part that she and her husband experienced when they moved into their home last year, it took a couple of months for customers to be properly notified about the presence of E. coli in their water a few years ago.
“Instead of Johnson Utilities coming forth with the information and broadcasting it to their entire consumer base, it came out through — I believe it was a broadcast message by Poston Butte — and then it got to Facebook and media from there,” she recalled. Those incidents are why, “I believe they have such a stigma attached to them.”
Friday’s ADEQ release encouraged Johnson Utilities customers to contact the company directly at (480) 998-3300 with questions and concerns, naming Katherine Nierva.
But Guzman said no matter how many times she’s tried to contact Johnson Utilities in the past few days, she either gets a busy tone or the line disconnects, and she hasn’t had better luck on Facebook.
Morse said she doesn’t even see the point in trying.
“There’s really never apologies from Johnson (Utilities),” she said. “We’re forced to use Johnson Utilities. We don’t have a choice. I’m sure I speak for many when I say we feel sometimes we’re being bullied by them. They know…they’re our only (water utility) option.”
Guzman echoed her statement, and vowed to continue pushing for answers.
“It’s kind of almost like the whole issue with Detroit. We don’t know what’s in our water, and they’re not being honest with us,” Guzman said. “…We expect there to be transparency with our utility companies.”