A former Fresno water plant operator used a private email server and cell phone to hide complaints of discolored or tainted water from his bosses, city officials said Thursday.
During a news conference, city leaders said they had no access to the server and the complaints, numbering an estimated 150 to 200 per year. The complaints were never shared with them, nor given to the state Water Resources Control Board as required by law.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin, City Manager Bruce Rudd and Thomas Esqueda, director of public utilities, discussed the findings in the city’s investigation thus far into the tainted and discolored water situation affecting northeast Fresno.
The former employee was identified as Robert Moorhead, the northeast water plant operator. He had documented the complaints during the mid-2000s until 2011, when he was fired. City officials on Thursday did not go into the reasons for his removal.
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Moorhead used a private email and cell phone and never reported the complaints to his superiors, a violation of city policy. The complaints also were not made public to the state, which is required under state law.
Moorhead has turned into a primary focus of the investigation by a private agency, city officials confirmed. They said he and his boss, Lon Martin, former assistant director of public utilities, will be interviewed by city investigators in coming days.
There was no tipoff that hundreds of complaints had been made even though the city was supplying bottled water to a small number of customers.
Swearengin laid out the city’s response since January and briefly went over the 12-year history of the problem, which remained mostly hidden from city officials until seven months ago.
(The city) lacked the processes necessary to document customer complaints and properly report those complaints to the state.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
She said the city responded within 24 hours of the initial complaint in January, triggering the investigation that evaluated plumbing and fixtures in homes and water chemistry that led to discoloration and other problems, including lead contamination. The city also examined its internal processes for documenting customer complaints and proper reporting to the state.
It was clear from the investigation that the city “lacked the processes necessary to document customer complaints and properly report those complaints to the state,” she said.
It’s still not known, Swearengin said, who made the decision to route customer complaints directly to the water system operator outside the city’s normal reporting protocol, and who directed city employees to not properly report complaints to the state.
And other than a few complaints of discolored water, no reports were forward to city officials. Swearengin said there had been an absence of complaints from 2004 to 2016 and nothing filed with the state.
The complaint process is now fixed, she said.
“It’s hindsight, but there’s no excuse for not properly recording customers’ complaints,” the mayor said.
City officials say 150 to 200 complaints were made annually to Moorhead using his private server, email and cell phone, but those were not reported to the state.
The city of Clovis told Fresno city leaders that their water plant gets about 50 to 75 complaints annually about water from its treatment plant. Reasonably, Fresno officials said, their city should expect far more since its plant is five times larger.
Lisa Koehn, Clovis assistant public utilities director, said the city had 49 discolored water complaints and 25 taste and odor complaints in 2015.
Swearengin went over the history of the problem, chronicling many of the most important moments in the process. The first complaint dates back to September 2004, about three months after the northeast plant first opened.
In February 2005, Mayor Alan Autry and former City Manager Andy Souza were notified only once of discolored water in eight to 10 homes, and were told that the situation was under control.
In 2005, Council Member Jerry Duncan got a call from Martin, the assistant public utilities director, saying that 15 to 20 customers were complaining and that the city’s water was “corrosion-free,” Swearengin said. At the time, the city said problems in the homes were related to water softeners.
There were supposed to be workshops and further discussions about the problem, but those never occurred, the mayor said.
Faced with a decision in 2005 to change out pipes or change water chemistry, Martin told Moorhead to change corrosion inhibitor chemistry. But there is no record of that change being made, the mayor said. Such a change must be reported to the state, and the state also has no record of it, she added.
Complaints were made directly to Moorhead on his personal server in violation of city policy, and he kept a private complaint log apart from official city records.
Swearengin described Moorhead’s system between 2004 and 2011 as “a lot of boxes.” She said Moorhead often worked from his home.
I feel like I’m being used as some kind of scapegoat.
Robert Moorhead, former city water plant operator
The city attorney has asked him to turn over documents and records that are city property to shed additional light on why those records were kept private, she said.
Esqueda said that between 2004 and 2011 the number of complaints to the city “was pretty much zip.”
From 2011 to 2016, complaints were logged on the city’s complaint line, said Mark Standriff, the city’s spokesman.
But none were reported to the state. It’s not known why that happened and is part of the city’s investigation, he said.
Standriff said there were two different plant operators, but the state has no record of the city reporting problems between 2004 and 2016.
He described the process that led to complaints being relayed to Moorhead.
The complaints were initially called in to dispatchers, but staffers were directed to send complaints to Moorhead, Esqueda said.
He said dispatch sent those complaints to Moorhead’s city email and city cellphone. During the investigation, the city learned that Moorhead’s city phone was programmed to push calls to his private cellphone, and he then used a private server to communicate with residents about their water problems.
He said nobody has been able to determine why those calls were directed that way and who ordered it done, which the city wants to address in the upcoming interview with Moorhead.
Swearengin said the city has heard from residents who said they spoke with Moorhead, and officials want to know what Moorhead told them.
Moorhead said Thursday that he wasn’t in charge of filing documents on odor or taste complaints, but reported to the state monthly on treatment plant issues.
He said he would address water complaints from copies of emails from the city’s water quality supervisor, Bob Little, so he could address issues at the plant, such as needing to alter the water’s chemical composition.
“My jurisdiction was just at the treatment plant and the water quality when it left the property line of the plant,” he said. “We had no discolored water at the treatment plant.”
Moorhead said it was his job to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to work on plant problems.
“I feel like I’m being used as some kind of scapegoat,” he said.
The chief of Fresno’s water operations was placed on administrative leave in July over discrepancies in the reporting of water quality issues. The city didn’t identify the employee because of confidentiality of personnel actions. But the post is held by Kenneth Heard, a 16-year veteran of the water division in Fresno’s Public Utilities Department.
The city found that water in most homes was not contaminated by lead at high enough levels to violate state guidelines. Of the 376 test results the city has received, four samples with higher lead levels were taken in kitchen sinks. Others were found in bathroom sinks, garage sinks, bathtubs and one shower.
Complaints about discolored water in northeast Fresno date as far back as 2004. That’s the year that the city, which had historically relied solely on pumped well water for its drinking water supply, began introducing Enterprise Canal water, treated at the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility, into the system serving northeast Fresno. In addition to disinfecting and filtering of the water, corrosion-control chemicals are added and the water is blended with pumped well water before it flows through the city’s water mains.
Earlier this year residents in northeast Fresno began complaining on social media about discolored water flowing out of their household taps. Initial checks by the city showed that some homes had lead in their water. Fresno’s water division, as well as the State Water Resources Control Board, maintain that what gets delivered to homes in the city’s system is safe and meets all state and federal standards for drinkability.
But the issues revolve around what happens when the blend of surface and pumped water interacts with the galvanized household plumbing in affected homes. Surface water has different temperature, chemical and pH characteristics than water pumped from wells. Those different characteristics can degrade protective mineral scales that form over time on the inside of pipes and allow corrosion to happen faster.
In recent months, the city has been incrementally adjusting treatment at the water plant, including pH and anti-corrosion chemicals, to see what effect it has on discoloration and lead levels in follow-up testing at affected homes.
Since January, the city made four changes to its water chemistry, including as recently as three weeks ago. Esqueda said the city plans to retain that chemistry for now.
He said improvements are being reported, with some residents reporting water discoloration disappearing and others seeing less color. Still, he admitted, some have reported no change.
He said the city will continue to evaluate what is different about the homes where water remains discolored.
The common theme, Esqueda said, is that galvanized pipe bought from offshore sources was used in home construction. He said that pipe has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
Experts Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Vernon Snoeyink of the University of Illinois are investigating the city’s water problems. Edwards worked on the Flint, Mich., investigation. Snoeyink is a nationally known expert who has been involved in federal Environmental Protection Agency investigations in recent years.
Snoeyink will attend a community meeting next Wednesday at Clovis West High School to discuss the investigation’s preliminary findings.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said no complaints will be ignored and urged Fresno residents to use the city’s FresGo app available for cellphones and through the city website.
He said complaints will come directly to the city in “real time” through the app, allowing the city to look at the number and locations of complaints.
We are committed to make sure we correct this problem.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
“It will help us identify where problems are occurring and who we need to contact” within the city to address them, he said.
The city, he said, has come a long way since the start of the investigation.
“We are committed to make sure we correct this problem and not only for these residents, but to make sure this kind of situation, whether it’s discolored water or something else, doesn’t ever happen again to this organization.”
Esqueda said it will take a month to two to complete the city’s investigation, which is being paid for from water enterprise reserve funds. The investigation has cost $800,000 so far, he said.
If you go
What: Northeast Fresno water community meeting
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17
Where: Clovis West High School multipurpose room
Who: City of Fresno and experts investigating the northeast Fresno water problems. Local, state and federal officials will attend the meeting as well as national water experts hired by the city of Fresno.