Energy & Environment

After public outcry, Richmond board votes to raise fluoride levels in town water

Water and Sewer Commission members from left Jay Furr, Morgan Wolaver, Greg Tucker, Bard Hill and David Sander discuss Richmond's participation in the state fluoride program with Town Manager Josh Arneson, far right, on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Photo by Dominic Minadeo/VTDigger

RICHMOND — Following the revelation that a town employee had unilaterally set the level of fluoride in Richmond’s public water supply at less than half the level recommended by the state, a town board voted unanimously Monday night to meet the state’s standards.

In a contentious meeting of the Richmond Water and Sewer Commission at the town center, dozens of residents debated Water Superintendent Kendall Chamberlin’s decision to, for three years, set fluoride levels far lower than community members realized. 

In a prepared statement delivered remotely, Chamberlin on Monday offered his “sincerest apology to the citizens of Richmond” and promised to ensure “nothing like this ever happens again.” When asked specific questions during public comment, the water superintendent remained silent.

Chamberlin came under fire after a Sept. 19 meeting of the commission, during which it was revealed that he had set Richmond’s fluoride levels to 0.3 milligrams per liter rather than 0.7, the measurement required at the time by the Vermont Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It is not mandatory for a town to opt into the state’s fluoridation program, according to Robin Miller, who leads the state health department’s Office of Oral Health. But the state does have requirements for towns that participate in the program, and one of those is that they must comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards on fluoride levels. 

“This is the first experience that I've had in my role here that a town has opted into the program but not fluoridated within the optimal range,” Miller told the board. When asked by a member of the public whether the town had been out of compliance for the past three years, she responded, “Yes.”

The motion to participate in the state fluoride program would mean raising the fluoride levels in Richmond from 0.3 back to the amount set by the state, according to Town Manager Josh Arneson.

“The motion before us is to essentially put in writing what we already thought we were doing,” commission member Jay Furr said, referring to the fact that he and his colleagues on the commission had only recently learned that Chamberlin had lowered the levels.

All five members of the commission voted in favor of the motion. 

When it came to Chamberlin’s role in the matter, members of the public argued for and against his decision.

“I’d first like to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kendall,” said Katy Mather, a former commission member. “However, making a decision to go below a state minimum for fluoridation should have been a policy change he brought to the water and wastewater commission, the Selectboard and the town.”

Attendee Erik Bailey defended Chamberlin, arguing that monthly water quality reports showing the daily fluoride residual are approved by the town manager and reviewed by the Department of Health. 

“So it's not just one guy doing what he wants,” Bailey said, referring to Chamberlin. “He's bringing these reports to his boss who signs them.”

The meeting ended with an executive session involving the “evaluation of an employee,” according to the agenda. After the closed-door session, Arneson said that “there is no decision at this point” when asked about disciplinary actions for said employee. 

However, during the meeting, Arneson and commission members agreed that supervision over water quality needs to be better in the future. 

“I think I can speak for the board or at least for myself that we will be reviewing those numbers much more closely in the future and frankly, we should have all along but we weren't,” Furr said. 

The Office of Oral Health also plans to impose new strategies in response to this incident, Miller said. 

“Rather than just sending the site visit report to the superintendent, we will send it to the superintendent and that person's supervisor going forward,” she said. “That's kind of a process improvement that we're making based on the situation.”

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Dominic Minadeo

About Dominic

Dom is a senior at the University of Vermont majoring in English. He previously worked as a culture reporter for the Vermont Cynic and as an intern for the Community News Service at UVM, where he held the position of Deputy News Editor of the Winooski News.

Email: dminadeo@vtdigger.org

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