HAMPTON – Public works staff in the city of Hampton engaged in a coverup that included the falsification and plagiarism of water reports, city officials alleged in a bombshell report at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Hampton City Manager Alex Cohilas and Tim Mitchell of Clearwater Solutions explained that they had uncovered the falsification of inspection reports for the city’s water system for more than a decade.
On Dec. 17, 2018, Cohilas said the Georgia Environmental Protection Division conducted a sanitary survey inspection of the city’s water system, and as a result, the EPD pointed out three recommendations and 11 deficiencies, two of them significant, in a letter dated Jan. 14, 2019.
Those significant deficiencies, according to that letter supplied by Cohilas to the Herald, consisted of the water system operator’s certification being insufficient for the Hampton water system, and that the system “is not providing continuous fluoridation to the water system,” which was listed as a violation of the permit to operate the water system.
The EPD also required that the operator of the Hampton water system hold a Class III certification.
Another letter from EPD to the city of Hampton, dated Sept. 30, 2019, indicated that nothing had been done concerning the operator’s classification. The letter gave a deadline of Oct. 31 for the city to “contract a Class III certified operator to oversee the operation of the Hampton Water System” or face “additional enforcement action.”
On Tuesday, Cohilas said, for a “variety of reasons,” he did not receive the letter until Oct. 29, 48 hours before the deadline. As a result, Cohilas contracted Clearwater Solutions, an Auburn, Ala.-based organization recommended to him by multiple individuals, then tasked their representative, Mitchell, with conducting a comprehensive investigation into the water system.
As Mitchell’s investigation went on, three city wells that provided some of Hampton’s water supply were shut down and “correctly-done retesting” was done concerning chlorine, coliform and pH levels.
In addition, the city’s Consumer Confidence Reports from 2017, 2018 and 2019 were removed from the city’s website. The EPA requires water agencies to deliver an annual Customer Confidence Report by July 1 of every year to provide water consumers with information on the quality of their drinking water.
The Herald obtained a copy of the 2019 CCR, which stated that in 2018, “as in years past, your tap water met all EPA and state drinking water health standards” and that the city’s system “has not violated a maximum containment level or any other water quality standard.”
In addition, a water tank referred to as the “North 40” water tank will be inspected, flushed and sanitized before it is brought back online.
Cohilas also said that the deficiencies with the city’s water system had been ongoing for at least a decade, and elected officials were not aware.
“Certain deficiencies were reported to the city in some form or fashion in 2016, 2013 and as far back as 2007,” Cohilas said. “I can’t find evidence that council members knew about it. There was one letter addressed to former Mayor Chris Moore, and I’m not sure if he knew the ramifications.”
The 2016 letter, dated Nov. 21, 2016, and concerning a survey conducted Nov. 15, indicated that the operator did not have the proper certification to run the system.
Mitchell: Falsified information going on for over 20 years; workers were ordered by management to falsify information
Tim Mitchell of Clearwater Solutions provided Hampton residents with another shock as he detailed some of his findings.
For starters, as he went through the operations of the water system, he said that he noticed other discrepancies, such as water that was purchased by the city that was not tested for chlorine, pH, or fluoride.
“Not only was it not being tested, but it wasn’t being reported on the proper forms,” Mitchell said.
In addition, Hampton’s water wells, which were required to be tested every day, were tested only on the weekdays, but the monthly reports had indicated the wells had been tested every day.
“That falsified information, as I looked further, had been going on for over 20 years,” Mitchell said, to gasps of members of the audience. “The public works director had knowledge that the license was not adequate.”
Mitchell also said that public works management directed untrained operators “to never record chlorine readings below the minimum or above the maximum.”
In 2007, the city was cited for over-chlorination of water, in a letter dated Dec. 26, 2007.
“The chlorine testing conducted during inspection on Well numbers 5 and 6 and additional testing conducted thereafter on Friday afternoon, Dec. 14, Saturday, Dec. 15, Sunday, Dec. 16 and Monday, Dec. 17 indicated the amount of chlorine injected into the water and the amount of chlorine remaining at the wells… were much higher than recommended limit under the issued permit,” the 2007 letter read.
The letter stated that the “existence of higher chlorine level may be an indication of either a problem with your feeding system and/or water quality issues that need to be investigated promptly” and that “people find the taste and smell of water with higher residual chlorine to be objectionable.”
In addition, pH readings at the wells were not tested, and in fact, there was no pH equipment available to do testing.
“The pattern was to falsely report chlorine and pH levels,” Cohilas said concerning some of his findings. “The pH levels were exactly perfectly neutral day after day, month after month, which is nothing short of a heavenly miracle.”
Mitchell: Hampton water, right now, is safe
After his statement, Mitchell was asked point-blank by Mayor Steve Hutchison if the water in Hampton is safe. Mitchell said it is.
When pressed for an explanation by Councilwoman Ann Tarpley as to how the city knows that, Mitchell said right now, the city is not using its own well water.
“You are using water from Henry County, and that water has been tested since Nov. 4, and there’s been ongoing testing since then.”
However, since the city is buying all of its water, instead of using some of its own water, it is having to pay more as a result.
“We will continue to (purchase water) until we get the lab results back from properly-certified staff,” Cohilas said. “The wells will stay down until we can ensure… we have to go above and beyond to ensure there are no faults (in the city’s well system.)”
When pressed by Councilman Errol Mitchell if the lack of testing led to unsafe water, Mitchell said he couldn’t really say, but they could not find any documented evidence that any issue was caused.
The Herald has filed an open records request with the city of Hampton to determine if any complaints concerning water quality were received by the public works department, and if so, how they were handled.
In the aftermath of these revelations by the city of Hampton, the city has scheduled a town hall meeting for Jan. 16, 2020, to address any questions concerning the city’s water system. A time and a location for the town hall meeting have yet to be determined.
In addition, the city unanimously approved, following an executive session, retention of a legal consultant, at a price not to exceed $10,000, for the matters related to this issue.