Water Meeting Brings Mounting Protest Against Policy Changes
More than 25 people out of nearly a hundred in attendance took the mike at a town hall meeting about Dayton’s drinking water protections Monday evening. Water department director Tammi Clements presented a revised version of the city’s proposed updates to its Source Water Protection Program (SWPP), a set of city zoning ordinances that since 1988 has prevented companies from bringing potentially hazardous chemicals into the area above or near Dayton’s wellfields.
The city is proposing revisions that make the area protected by the law slightly smaller, and could make it easier for companies to get limited exceptions to the chemical restrictions through a variance process. Right now variance requests go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, and since the law’s passage no variances have been approved and few have been requested. The new proposal would allow variances for under 10,000 pounds of chemicals to go through the zoning administrator without receiving a public hearing.
Kevin Jones with the Fair River Oaks priority board was one of many speakers who took issue with any increased flexibility for companies to bring toxic chemicals into the area near the wellfields.
“When you say you’re gonna bring business to the table, that makes it sound like you’re gonna put the fox in charge of the hen house,” said Jones. “How do we trust that? It doesn’t even make sense to trust that.”
Jones’ statement brought laughter and cheers from the crowd, and many other speakers raised similar questions. They asked why the city is pushing for revisions that appear to have little public support, and demanded to know who exactly is pushing for increased flexibility for businesses.
“For the life of me, I cannot figure out what the motivation is to change this system,” said attorney Dennis Turner. “It does not seem from the comments I’ve heard so far that it’s gonna improve and make the water safer.”
Dayton water officials say business owners have asked for more flexibility, and that they’ve been tasked with updating the proposal based on state EPA recommendations. They also say the updated policy would make the drinking water protections stronger overall by adding more chemicals to the restricted list and by expanding monitoring in the area outside the regulated zone, known as the five-year time of travel area.
After another round of feedback from water customers, businesses and affiliated groups, the proposal goes to the city plan board before final approval by the city commission.
“Do I think we will get one hundred percent agreement? Probably not,” said Clements. “But do I believe that this program we are putting forward here is protective of our water resources? Absolutely.”
Clements says it’s possible there will be more small changes to the proposal along the way, and both the plan board and the city commission processes involve public hearings. The water department serves more than 400,000 people in Dayton and the surrounding suburbs. Clements says customers who can’t attend public meetings are welcome to email their comments through the city website.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.