Breach of contract? Montgomery County, Dayton at odds over water supply

Montgomery County has accused the city of Dayton of breaching its contract for water service by failing to be transparent about potential contamination by man-made chemicals, according to a letter from the county administrator to the Ohio EPA.

The county also says Dayton needs redundancy in its water system and backup generators so there are not water disruptions and outages during natural disasters, outages that put the community at serious risk.

The county announced Friday it plans to do its own testing of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination in its water distribution system and is asking the city to show how it plans to reduce and remove the chemical threat from the drinking water, officials said.

MORE: Montgomery County expresses concern about region’s drinking water quality

“We are not saying the water is unsafe,” said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert. “But what we are saying is that the water has to be tested regularly and comprehensively in coordination with the city and Ohio EPA.”

The city of Dayton operates the region’s largest water treatment plant, and Montgomery County purchases water that it provides to about 82,000 customers, or roughly 250,000 people and businesses, outside of the city.

The county and city are expected to take part in “good-faith” negotiations to try to resolve the dispute, according to the contract.

Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said the city has been aggressive in responding to PFAS contamination and has shared all of the testing data it has generated with the county.

She said recent tests show the level of PFAS in Dayton’s water is between 7 to 13 parts per trillion, which is significantly lower than state health advisory limits of 70 parts per trillion.

“When we are talking 1 part per trillion, we are talking about a drop of contamination in 500,000 barrels of water,” Dickstein said.

‘Uwilling to engage with us’

The county has requested help from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to set up its own testing for PFAS and to arrange a meeting with the city related to its concerns over water safety and service reliability.

Last year, Dayton and Montgomery County agreed to a 20-year contract for water service with a potential 20-year renewal.

But Dayton has not shared a plan with the county for how it intends to contain and remediate PFAS in the water supply and prevent further contamination, said Patrick Turnbull, Montgomery County director of environmental services.

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The county repeatedly has asked the city for more information about PFAS, but the city has denied requests related to discussing around sampling locations, risk mitigation, treatment strategies and the formation of a work group focused addressing contamination concerns, Turnbull said.

“To date, we’ve not received answers to questions we have asked,” Turnbull said. “The city has been unwilling to engage with us.”

The city has provided unhelpful raw data with no context, and notably, the city also has not shared information about what steps it will take to address PFAS, Turnbull said.

But Dayton spokesperson Toni Bankston provided a document Monday that listed multiple contacts and conversations with county environmental services over these issues, including correspondence from October, November and December.

The city says it met with county personnel about PFAS in December and sent data in February. The city says in June it provided the county with all PFAS data submitted to the Ohio EPA.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that studies suggest may lead to health problems.

Officials believe the PFAS in Dayton’s system were caused by firefighter foam used during training at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Dayton Fire Training Center on McFadden Avenue.

‘Breakdown in communication’

Dickstein said the city, Ohio EPA and key stakeholders meet on a monthly and quarterly basis to work on sampling, testing and monitoring PFAS and figuring out how to contain its migration.

The city shares information to keep all of its customers informed about PFAS, but the city has held back some information because it filed a lawsuit against the parties responsible for the PFAS contamination, Dickstein said.

RELATED: What you need to know about chemicals in water

The city will share its comprehensive strategies for mitigating PFAS contamination with its customers, including the county, at some point in the future, she said.

“I am concerned there’s a real breakdown in communication,” Dickstein said. “Certainly, we welcome having those conversations in a productive setting.”

But the county will test for PFAS in its own distribution system and will work with the Ohio EPA to determine the appropriate sampling locations, Turnbull said.

Water outages pose ‘unacceptable risk’

The issues between the city and county are not limited just to PFAS.

The Memorial Day tornadoes caused water outages that led to a dangerous and potentially deadly situation because there was inadequate water pressure in the system for firefighting activities, says a June 11 letter from the county administrator to the Ohio EPA. The system was not restored for about three days.

“We are extremely fortunate that a large fire did not break out during this time, but this was an unacceptable risk,” Colbert’s letter states.

The city needs to invest in backup power generation systems because power outages should not put the community at risk of a water crisis, Colbert said at a Monday press conference.

Water service in the city and county were disrupted twice this year. First a water main break took place in February that led to a boil-advisory to be issued for nearly then entire service area. Then the Memorial Day tornadoes knocked out power to the main treatment plant.

“This is really not about us and the city of Dayton. I know this has been cast as some kind of war between two governments and water. But what this is about is the quality of life of our community,” Colbert said.

Negotiations, mediation possible

The county has exercised its right under its water contract with the city to enter negotiations to try to resolve the dispute.

If the sides cannot reach an agreement, the county plans to ask for mediation.

Dickstein said forming a PFAS working group for the city and county alone would be short-sighted. She said instead they want to create a regional task force or commission to study and address the issue, which impacts the larger community and all local systems that draw water from the underground aquifer.

As far as water disruptions, the city of Dayton exceeds best practices for backup power to its water plants and has a primary and secondary line that come from different substations, Dickstein said.

Backup generators are about the size of a train engine and the city would need six or seven generators that would cost around $15 million, which would have to be paid for by customers, Dickstein said.

There’s a chance the backup generators would never be used, because other powerful and destructive storms that hit the city in recent memory and resulted in significant power outages did not lead to water disruptions, she said.

By the numbers: Dayton/Montgomery County water systems

82,000: Number of county customers

54,000: Number of Dayton water accounts

12,000: Number of water samples tested by county each year

1,400: Number of miles of water main lines belonging to county

800: Number of miles of water lines in Dayton’s water distribution network

70 parts per trillion: Federal health advisory limit for PFAS

7 to 13 parts per trillion: What city of Dayton says is the PFAS level in Dayton’s drinking water

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