I urge a reconsideration of Item 9 (30156) for the contract renewal for Thomas O. Heikkinen, General Manager of the Madison Water Utility. I strongly recommend, that any renewal of contract be provisional, lasting no longer than one year, with specific goals to be met for any further renewal. Please do not rubber stamp this appointment.
I believe that there are some serious deficiencies in the management of our drinking water that need to be addressed. The MWU’s current water management paradigm:
1. Ignores science behind hydrogeology, chemistry and biology – most notably, human bio-chemistry. The engineering – pumping & piping – is the be all, end all of MWU’s thinking. The quality of what comes out the tap is dismissed in a barrage of PR parsing, obfuscating and disingenuousness. Water volume is everything; quality is nothing in MWU’s world. At most they will express “disappointment.” But disappointment doesn’t deliver clean water.
2. Ignores the interests of ratepayers by investing in well sites known to be unproductive and highly polluted. The recently approved Southeast side well is a case-in-point.
3. Ignores citizen input from the Citizen Advisory Panels with regard to well-siting and capital investment priorities. The Eastside CAP prioritized Well 8 for filtering; Well 7 was way down the list of priorities. Well 8 languishes while Well 7 is being super-sized far beyond anything approved by any CAP, and is being built to a scale that denies the recent, highly rigorous scientific analysis of the site.
4. Fails to provide adequate staff comment on development proposals’ effects on our drinking water supply. See for yourself: the University Crossing development proposal’s staff comment section for the Water Utility relies entirely on self-reporting by the developer. Yet it sits atop the sensitive wellhead protection zone.
5. Dismisses water conservation; the utility won’t even address it, especially with regard to business water use. This is a real problem since some 82% of our water is consumed by business/institutions.
6. Treats citizen ratepayers as cash cows in allowing polluters to get off scot-free after wrecking our drinking water with carcinogenic filth, thus requiring either expensive filters or new, multi-million dollar wells.
7. Stifles scientific input from citizens. At best citizen input is taken as a personal affront. Straightforward questioning, pointing out scientific facts, has resulted in a citizen getting thrown off the MWU Board. At worst, honest, straightforward citizen input has resulted in a criminal complaint to the city attorney. Dissent is a punishable offense under this MWU administration.
8. Puts PR above clean water. Are two PR people really necessary for one agency? Wouldn’t it be more effective to hire two lawyers to aggressively pursue polluters?
9. Lies about Madison Water meeting “all standards” and about the existence of PCE in certain wells. Indeed, the federal drinking water standard for the toxin PCE is zero. That’s 0.00. Down to the parts per billion, zero. There is no safe level of PCE in drinking water according to the EPA. Many Madison wells have significant, and growing levels of PCE and other industrial chemicals. Yes, there is a sub-standard EPA limit that MWU seems to fixate on (and that our water just barely falls under), but that is a secondary, outer limit that accepts a certain number of PCE-related deaths and neurological illnesses (such as Parkinsons) as, somehow, ok. I don’t believe that the preventable death or incapacitation of even one person is acceptable. Neither should our citizen-owned water utility. Furthermore, the MWU is playing fast & loose with the truth with it’s statement, “It’s important to note that no PCE has ever been found in the water at Well 8.” While that is technically true, we do know that the breakdown products of PCE have been found in Well 8 water. Breakdown products have been found to be at least as dangerous and possibly more dangerous than PCE itself. It’s time for the disingenuousness to end at the water utility.
10. Coddles polluters such as Madison Kipp Corporation. Instead of doing the right thing and suing to defend citizen-owned capital investments in clean drinking water (well infrastructure and pipe systems), MWU provides PR cover & damage control for polluters and their polluting activities in the media and at public meetings.
11. Wastes federal money dedicated to providing clean water. Federal stimulus money was dedicated to filtering nasties out of an east side well; instead of making the enduring capital investment, the money went to consultants to gather citizen input. That input was then ignored. The money was wasted. (See Item 3.)
12. Works to dismiss or suppress dissenting citizens from the MWU board.
I am willing to give benefit of the doubt; Mr. Heikkinen had inherited a difficult situation with problems that had been institutionalized before his arrival (especially the ingrained attitudes of engineering über alles, which, unfortunately still reigns). Some things have improved. But let’s be clear: the improvements have only come as a result of bruising fights featuring brave citizens brandishing the scientific truth vs. MWU leadership denying it while personally attacking these very knowledgeable citizens (or, as Mr. Heikkinen refers to them, “wing nuts” and “Ph.Ds lacking common sense”). When the denials become too embarrassingly untenable, the MWU’s PR machine goes into overdrive to assure the public that the utility has always believed the science it once denied (but those pesky citizens are still really wing-nut crazy, and those Ph.Ds in environmental toxicology still lack common sense).
The last Water Utility Board meeting was illuminating. Board members discussed their discomfort with these jabs at citizens. Heikkinen refused to apologize. Later, another board member did come to his defense to explain away management-attitude issues that keep coming to light. This board member explained that since Mr. Heikkinen is an engineer, he can’t be expected to know what it takes to deliver clean water; that would be the responsibility of other departments. (He didn’t specify which department; would that be the Health Department? We don’t know. But these statements – by a board member – contravene the Water Utility’s own “Outcomes Policies.”) It would be worth reviewing the streaming video to begin to understand the level of discomfort about the way things are going at the MWU. Except….I would have sent a link to the video, but there is none. And….I would have sent you a link to the minutes, but the minutes omit virtually all of the discussion that happens at board meetings. Interesting that. Apparently MWU is a public records-free zone.
We demand an assurance from you, the fiduciary agents of our citizen-owned water utility, that any renewal of the manager’s contract will not be for more than a year, with renewal possible if these demands are met:
1. The public personal attacks on citizens and threats of arrest will stop;
2. The MWU General Manager will ramp up his knowledge of the science of clean water delivery in its full panoply. From chemistry, to hydrogeology, to biology, to bio-chemistry, to geophysics, to environmental toxicology, etc., the GM will studiously research, rigorously adhere to and apply the most up-to-date, proven technology, including conservation and re-establishment of a healthy hydrologic cycle (i.e., infiltration) for clean water delivery over a time horizon of generations. (Start with seven.) This is already covered for the most part in the Water Utility Board’s Outcomes handbook, specifically O-2E. The MWU board has given him a pass on expanding his knowledge, but you, the representative body of the people, the ultimate fiduciary authority, should not. Furthermore, in future personnel searches, the city should consider Epic’s successful strategy for software development. They hire liberal arts graduates to manage projects because of their ability to integrate a wide variety of knowledge bases. The engineers work under the liberal arts graduates precisely because engineers are not trained to think expansively, integratively. Curiosity is not an engineer’s strong suit. They know what they know. Period. Full-stop.
3. Monster wells are not acceptable. Super-sized wells are not a sustainable strategy – environmentally or economically – for clean drinking water. Overbuilding, overpumping and over-dynamiting a well, then building super-sized water storage over the top of it all ends up warping and cracking protective bedrock. The result is fissures which allow surface toxins and pathogens to infiltrate the deep aquifers we rely on for drinking water. This must end. The science must be followed, not denied.
4. Polluters of clean water will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law;
5. Further pollution of our drinking water ends now;
6. MWU will provide clear, strongly worded staff comment for all future development that may have an impact on our water quality. Pro-forma hear/see/speak no evil pencil-whipped comment on development will not suffice. MWU’s comment in the future should, among other things, cite the impacts of paving, and any other capping off/interference with the healthy functioning of our hydrolologic cycle.
7. Long-term financial viability of all MWU capital assets (to include the water supply itself, well infrastructure, well zones, filters, etc.) will be defended at all costs. This includes avoidance of well-sites known to be polluted or lacking in sufficient flow. The current five-year planning horizon is not acceptable. Well infrastructure is a 60-year+ investment; the water flowing to it is perpetual. We must protect our city’s long-term financial interests for perpetuity. Water is a financial interest.
8. MWU will communicate clearly, honestly and provide full records to the public: a) the existence of pollutants; b) the health threats posed by those pollutants; c) the likely sources of those pollutants; d) the city’s efforts to recover damages from the polluters; e) the city’s efforts to stop further pollution; f) video and full minutes of Water Utility Board proceedings will be made available quickly and in perpetuity. The denial and obfuscation on behalf of the polluters must no longer be part of the MWU’s duty.
9. Dissenting citizens will be appointed to the MWU board to counterbalance the overly comfortable consensus there.
More dynamite down a hole does not a quality water system make.
Michael D. Barrett
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