Government officials in Salem, OR, misled residents about the safety of their drinking water in recent weeks. At 6:03 PM on May 23, the city put out a press release announcing definitively that its water was safe, following an advisory earlier that day from the Oregon Health Authority about toxic algae blooms in its source. In reality, the city had only begun testing that very day.
“City of Salem drinking water remains safe to drink,” the headline read. According to the announcement, although the state’s health authority had issued an advisory due to toxic algae blooms in Detroit Reservoir, the primary water source of water for the city, the city itself was fine. “The city has a vigorous water testing and sampling program, and staff are keeping a very close eye on the developing situation,” residents were assured.
However, less than a week later, Salem officials were sending out alerts over identified contamination in the city’s drinking water. Words like “severe” and “emergency” were used to describe the situation. As it turned out, preliminary results from the test on the 23rd, which the city received on Saturday—three days before informing the public, in violation of the EPA’s 24-hour public notice requirement—showed elevated, unsafe levels of cyanotoxins, which can, depending on the concentration, cause serious harm to the liver and kidneys. Among the toxins uncovered by last Wednesday’s test, were cylindrospermopsin, which is potentially carcinogenic and has been shown to be damaging to skin, genes, the liver, and to development, and microcystin which mainly affects the liver. The latter tested at roughly 12 times the maximum allowable amount for human consumption. Tuesday’s advisory from city instructed residents to watch for symptoms of exposure, which include stomach pain, ulcers, cramps, and vomiting.
Experts from the Oregon Health Authority have since warned that nothing can be done to treat the water—most filters, boiling, and other methods typically used to purify water do not eliminate the cyanotoxins.
On Thursday, with grocery stores in the area either cleared out or running woefully short on bottled water, the city claimed there was no risk for children over the age of 6 and healthy adults. It did specify that the vulnerable population advisory would “remain in effect until further notice.” Additionally, it announced water distribution stations which would be open to the public with the condition that it would fall upon residents to bring their own containers and come with a strict 5 gallon limit. On Wednesday it was reported that Salem and the state of Oregon had no plans to distribute water to residents, leaving many panicked, and frustrated.
Margie Mars, 50, a mother and former journalist from Salem who suffers from an enlarged liver and spleen as well as stage 4 kidney disease, expressed her frustration over email. “We can’t even pick up water for disabled neighbors,” she lamented. “Also, I have six people in my home and there[sic] pets, five gallons is ridiculous. And not everyone has containers.”
Mars, who plans to see her doctor for gastrointestinal pain she’s been feeling, told Paste residents are owed an explanation by the city of its timeline regarding the testing and the all-clear notice.
“With my health already so fragile, it scares me to think about all the water I’ve had over the past few days,” she wrote.
Tashi Weinstein Polson, 28, criticized the city’s lack of clear communication during the crisis, which she blamed for causing panic. The alerts that went out to residents did not specify what the emergency was. Over Twitter direct messenger Polson further explained that she and her three housemates share and ration from a single jug in the refrigerator, with no supplies available nearby, and no end in sight.
“I don’t really understand the whole situation myself and it is nerve racking my main concern is how long? [How] [l]ong will we be drink out of bottle of water[?] [W]ill we have to wait years like Flint?” she explained. “Salem is in the dark right now.”
Above all else, Polson blamed the problem on the city’s budgetary priorities—specifically what she deemed neglect of its parks and resources. “I think this was a disaster waiting to happen because of the city’s policy of do as little as possible,” Polson wrote, noting that the city loved its hospital and its Chamber of Commerce to the exclusion of almost all else.
In particular, Polson lambasted Salem’s plan to build a new, state-of-the-art police station. “The city spends millions on public safety instead of on things that actually need it.” Initially voted down, Salem voters approved the bond for the project last May. The planned facility is 115,000 square feet, and comes equipped with a crime lab and storage room for S.W.A.T. and bomb disposal units. All told, the $61.8 million endeavor will cost $6.1million more than the amount the city spent on maintaining its transportation and utility infrastructure last year—which includes water treatment.
Other residents raised similar concerns. Kevin Jacoby, 39, an attorney from the area who, in the past, opposed a plan to expand the hospital, noted that the pro-development Chamber of Commerce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, essentially runs the show, spending “real money on city elections.”
“The city is extremely receptive to developers,” he said in a phone interview, recalling a case he’d won against a hospital expansion and noting that the Chamber is an affiliate of the national Chamber of Commerce, which famously leans laissez-faire. “Pretty much they’ll approve any land use application that comes through.”
Meanwhile, this year, the state of Oregon’s has faced budgetary shortfalls despite efforts to raise revenues. Finite resources make it particularly vulnerable to environmental crises. Already, it spends just 2.7 percent of its budget on natural resources.
According to the EPA, harmful algae blooms like those in Salem are unlikely to go anywhere in the near future. Over the last few decades, such events have been increasing in “frequency, severity and geographic distribution”—likely due to the effects of climate change, according to a release by the agency from 2013. The EPA lists several contributing factors including an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, rising sea levels, warmer waters, changing oceanic salinity, altered rainfall patterns, and intensified coastal upwelling, wherein nutrients from the seafloor are sucked up to the surface at the coastline.
Salem’s crisis provides a clear warning for municipalities and cities across the country to be prepared. Our requests for comment from the city and the Chamber of Commerce went unanswered.