The Mormon Church supplied tainted water to its members for years

Utah regulators turned a blind eye to faulty water systems at a girls’ summer camp, trusting the LDS Church would eventually fix the problem.

High Country News/September 2, 2019

By Emma Penrod

On an early June morning in the early 2000s, I piled into a van with a group of neighborhood girls and headed up to Aspencrest summer camp, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My pillow, stuffed with provisions for the week ahead — pajamas, an extra jacket, scripture — was propped against the window.

We drove up a steep, sparsely wooded mountainside dotted with small farms. The van, supervised by church volunteers from my neighborhood congregation, pulled up to a dusty pavilion in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City. Aspencrest Camp was barren, except for a sparse grove of its lacey namesake trees. The other girls and I sleepily unpacked our tents.

This was not the wooded wonderland that I — a resolute 12-year-old tomboy — envisioned when older girls described their mystical experiences at our church’s annual all-girls camp. But I was determined to make the best of it. For most members of the LDS Church, camping was a religious rite — a mark of emerging adulthood. I intended to return home a woman of faith, ready to tackle the temptations of junior high.
The camp’s amenities included self-service mess halls, flush toilets and showers, even one of those challenge courses, where we participated in exercises such as the “trust” fall, where our religious leaders taught us that God would always look after us.

We prepared traditional meals on the camp grills or provisional gas stoves and bonded by cooking “friendship stew,” a surprisingly palatable dish made with random canned goods supplied by the campers. We giggled, ate candy and haggled over extra shower time while we waited in line to fill our water bottles at the tap beside the camp pavilion.

None of us ever dreamed that the water might be unsafe.

But according to state records obtained by High Country News from a former engineer with the Utah Division of Drinking Water, Aspencrest’s water has long been contaminated with bacteria — and it remains tainted to this day.

While Aspencrest is the setting for some of my fondest childhood memories, I wasn’t surprised when this investigation revealed that regulators overlooked potential health risks at church-owned facilities, not once but twice in recent years. The LDS Church, which is omnipresent in Utah, has been widely suspected of dictating public policy and granting leniency to prominent church members who break the law. Why would the regulatory agencies responsible for our health and safety be any different?

For years, state regulators turned a blind eye to potential health risks at multiple church-owned facilities, trusting that their fellow believers would eventually make good on promises to correct the problem.

Preparations for the annual Aspencrest trip began months in advance. There were handmade journals to craft and camp songs to memorize. The first day was usually filled with mishaps as we learned to pitch our tents on the steep, sunny hillside. The bishop of our congregation would arrive later, driving a taco cart from which he sold cinnamon tortillas.

We swam in the ice-cold creek, trying not to lose the flimsy water shoes required by our adult chaperones, who feared leeches. We sang and danced, and occasionally one of our more permissive leaders helped us sneak away to Kamas, the nearest town, to buy illicit milkshakes. I looked forward to the pivotal spiritual fireside — a candlelight meeting at which we revealed our deepest secrets and pledged loyalty to our church.

To countless girls like me, the camp was a safe place to test the waters of adulthood, while savoring the last days of our childhood. We worried about small things — what our friends would think of our makeup-free pimples, or whether poison ivy grows in Utah. But we never doubted the safety of Aspencrest.

Though Aspencrest is not the largest recreational facility owned by the LDS Church, state records suggest as many as 600 campers are there during any given week. At least 90 Salt Lake-area congregations — each representing about 300 members — are assigned to the camp. Most girls between 12 and 16 will spend a week there each year; many young women return in subsequent years as volunteer camp leaders.

The spring from which Aspencrest draws its drinking water has a history of bacterial contamination. According to an August 2018 memo, the camp’s primary water source has tested positive for coliform bacteria since 1995. Tests reveal that the bacteria were still present as of June 2019.

Coliform bacteria are found in animal and human digestive tracts and feces, as well as in soil and plant material. Most coliforms are harmless, but federal rules do not permit them in drinking water because their presence indicates that the water may have been contaminated by fecal material. And potentially serious diseases can be caused by fecal contamination, including illnesses triggered by some kinds of E. coli, which can cause stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

The camp was told to fix the problem by June 30, 2019 — but the state water department let it slide. Under normal circumstances, the state would note such noncompliance on Aspencrest’s public drinking water report card. If the camp accumulated sufficient points, either due to multiple infractions or because violations had been ignored for lengthy periods of time, its approval to provide public drinking water could be revoked.

By early July, the division had yet to add any infraction to the camp’s report card, even though the spring had again tested positive for bacterial contamination the previous month. Instead, the Utah Division of Drinking Water offered to let Aspencrest maintain its clean record in exchange for the church’s promise that Aspencrest would chlorinate its drinking water permanently, in spite of previous communications in which the division asserted that chlorination was not an acceptable long-term remedy. A July 2015 letter from the Utah Division of Drinking Water shows that while state regulators gave Aspencrest permission to install a disinfection system to temporarily address the contamination, they warned that camp managers would have to prove that “ongoing disinfection/chlorination is for precautionary purposes at a safe water supply rather than remedial purposes at an unsafe water supply.”

This is not the first time the Division of Drinking Water turned a blind eye to the camp’s water problems, according to Steve Onysko, a Utah state water engineer who spent nearly 20 years at the Utah Division of Drinking Water. Onysko, a middle-aged man with graying hair, contacted me during the summer of 2018, when I was working as a reporter at Utah’s flagship daily, The Salt Lake Tribune.

Onysko had spent years documenting situations where division staffers had, in his opinion, failed to fulfill their duty to uphold the state’s drinking water standards. In late 2017, Onysko was fired from the department after an investigation into a work-place abuse complaint. Onysko, who believes he was dismissed for whistleblowing, has filed suit against his former employer. In court filings, the Utah Division of Drinking Water has acknowledged that Onysko’s professional competence was never in question.

Onysko claims that as long as the church agreed to fix any problems, the agency would waive normal public penalties and the church’s water problems would remain unrecorded, although the division denies this. Onysko alleges that the department wanted to avoid worrying parishioners or parents who send their children to camps like Aspencrest.

Despite repeated warnings from state drinking water regulators, the water at Aspencrest continues to fall short of state drinking water standards. The disinfection system is a flimsy safeguard against sickness, Onysko says. Should Aspencrest’s disinfection system fail for any reason — during a power outage, for example — the untreated water could allow live bacteria into the system, potentially sickening hundreds of unsuspecting campers.

In fact, the state says the disinfection system “is not an acceptable remedy,” and rules require water-system operators to prevent bacteria from entering the drinking water system in the first place. “Disinfection shall not be used to mask ongoing contamination and shall not be used as a substitute for correcting deficiencies,” according to the state rule.

In a written statement to High Country News, Utah Division of Drinking Water Director Marie Owens said her department worked with the LDS Church to ensure the water source provided to Aspencrest camp complies with state standards. “The system responded to the division in September 2018 that they were complying with the requirement to continuously disinfect.” Owens did not respond to a request to clarify why the division in a 2015 memo said long-term disinfection was unacceptable.

Meanwhile, Aspencrest is not the first, or only, LDS-operated water system to experience problems to which the Division of Drinking Water turned a blind eye.

Three mountain ranges to the west of Aspencrest, a standard-issue LDS chapel rises out of one of the West’s most barren deserts.  The Dugway chapel, with its tan brick facade and white spires, serves an isolated congregation of Latter-day Saints, most of whom work for the U.S. Army on a base that, according to its official website, tests biological and chemical weapons.

Like many remote communities, Dugway, Utah, is served by multiple small, privately held water systems. One of these systems — consisting of a single well, pump and filtration unit — is owned and operated by the LDS Church to provide water during services for a congregation of about 200.

But sources knowledgeable about the system’s design are skeptical of the experimental water filtration system that the church has installed — but declined to test — in Dugway.
Onysko, the former Utah Division of Drinking Water engineer, surveyed the Dugway water system before his termination. The filter, he says, may be unable to reduce naturally occurring but potentially harmful minerals and metals to safe drinking levels.

The valley is sparsely populated, with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, many of whom are members of the LDS Church. This stark white landscape, encompassing the base and a part of the Goshute Indian Reservation, is nicknamed Skull Valley after the number of animals that have died there after drinking from local ponds. Potable water is scarce.

The water in the Dugway chapel’s well contains iron and manganese in amounts considerably above EPA recommendations, according to the church’s own tests. High levels of these minerals are not considered as dangerous to humans as, say, lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But they do pose a risk to developmental health.

State records show that in 2014, the LDS Church sought approval for a water treatment plant designed to remove minerals in general, and manganese in particular, from the well. Rather than buying an approved filtration unit, the church opted to design a mechanism of its own. After an initial round of testing showed a reduction in manganese, state officials signed off on the design. “The Division believes in giving water systems as much flexibility as possible to address their own issues as long as public health will not be compromised,” said Division Director Marie Owens in a written statement. “As with any treatment process, we require sample results to ensure that the installation is effective before issuing a final operating permit.”

But Paul Check, the production manager at Wisconsin-based Clack Corporation, which supplied the parts for the church’s custom filter, is skeptical of the church’s design. Normally, he says, the managers of small water systems simply buy off-the-shelf components. But the particular components the church selected, Check recalls, have never been tested to ensure they work together. “I’ve been in the business now for 30 years, and wouldn’t know if this exactly would work,” he says. “It would take someone with a lot of experience to make it work, if it’s going to work at all.”

The church’s components, Check says, have been used to remove manganese and iron from drinking water for nearly 100 years. But they only work when air is present to help oxidize and absorb dissolved metals. If the filter isn’t properly aerated, he says, it won’t work.

The trouble with aerating a water system, Check says, is that if it’s not done carefully, bacteria can enter the system. Once there, they may collect and grow inside the filter. Over time, if the filter becomes coated with bacteria, it will stop removing manganese and may actually release additional metals into the drinking water.

What the church should have done, Check says, is run an extended pilot study to ensure the long-term success of its design. Instead, after an initial round of tests in 2014, the church declined to provide the Division of Drinking Water with additional samples.

Onysko discovered the lack of testing data three years later, while he was working for the Utah Division of Drinking Water. During a routine survey of the water system, he noticed that several related measures — including the amount of total dissolved solids in the water — had significantly worsened since the most recent tests he had on record. Unable to get satisfactory answers from the local maintenance crew, Onysko reached out to the manufacturer — Check — who suggested that the filter may have become clogged.

Onysko told Owens, the division director, that he needed to contact LDS Church headquarters to find out if anyone had done any long-term testing on the Dugway filter. Owens, he alleges, told him that all direct correspondence with the church had to go through a single staffer named Dave Hansen, a Utah Division of Drinking Water environmental scientist. Hansen relayed information from Roy McDaniel, the church’s water manager, who did not provide test data, merely saying the church had not conducted additional testing because manganese does not pose a health risk.

This is partly true, and partly false. The EPA has two tiers of drinking water standards. Water systems are required to screen for “primary” contaminants, which are considered harmful to human health. The EPA’s “secondary” standards are for “nuisance” contaminants, including iron and manganese.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the presence of manganese in drinking water may cause developmental delays in infants and fetuses, according to Bob Benson, a drinking water toxicologist with the EPA. In a 2018 email to Onysko, Benson expressed concern that infants could be exposed if the church’s parishioners unknowingly prepared formula using contaminated drinking water. Still, he declined to intervene on Onysko’s behalf beyond providing more than a dozen studies regarding manganese’s potential health impacts.

Onysko alleges that when he attempted to present his findings to division leadership, his supervisor, Owens, became visibly angry and told him that he was attacking McDaniel’s judgment, adding that she knew McDaniel personally (Owens denies this) through the church. Onysko claims that Owens assured him that the church’s staff knew what they were doing and would never fail to ensure the safety of church drinking water.

Owens denies that the division was overly permissive. Because there is no enforceable federal standard for manganese, there was no need for additional tests, she said.

“(The) EPA is looking into setting (a health standard)  for manganese and we are watching this process closely, but as of now, there are only aesthetic standards for both these parameters,” according to a written statement by Owens. Representatives of the LDS Church, including McDaniel, did not respond to requests for comment.

The girls in my congregation had mixed feelings about summer camp. For some, Aspencrest was the highlight of summer vacation. Others saw it as an arduous pilgrimage, to be endured only because their parents insisted that they go.

For me, the oldest of my class in church and at school, camp represented a delightful opportunity to escape from the humdrum of suburban life and prove myself a leader within my church. As I grew older and considered the limited leadership roles available to women in the church, I imagined myself returning to the camp as a volunteer leader like those who once guided me.

Investigating Onysko’s claims and reading state memos became a sort of “trust fall” exercise. Except this time, my leaders weren’t there to catch me, and I fell. Aspencrest’s water was almost certainly contaminated when I was there. It was almost certainly contaminated when my friends were there. It’s almost certainly contaminated now that we’re grown — perhaps even this summer, when my friends’ children were staying at the camp.

Rules and safety standards for drinking water, like other environmental regulations, are generally established at the federal level. The Environmental Protection Agency determines the maximum amount of bacteria, lead or other contaminants that may be present in drinking water.

In most cases, the state-level environmental agency is responsible for ensuring that the EPA standards are met. In Utah, it’s the Division of Water. State agencies regulate how water systems are built to ensure compliance with federal rules, conduct inspections and issue penalties to enforce the rules at all public water systems. Water systems are considered “public” if they serve more than 15 households, or at least 25 individuals daily, regardless of whether government or private entities own them.

This is why Onysko, who is not a member of the LDS Church, was flummoxed by what he perceived as instructions to let the Dugway church — a public facility that fell under his jurisdiction — off the hook. Though only a few of the 22-some violations and oversights he believes he documented over the years involved church-owned facilities, their religious association, Onysko says, seemed to put them in a special class when his colleagues made inspections.

Looking back, he says, he believes the situation was more complicated than outright cronyism.

“Some of it was, ‘You are my religion, so you can do whatever you want to do,’ ” he says. “Other times it was, they were such religious zealots that (they believed you could) do whatever you want, because God wouldn’t let something bad happen. And a third was, you can do whatever you want, because you’re so much smarter than us.” Junior staffers, he says, frequently seemed “intimidated” or star-struck by church leaders.

Onysko was similarly disturbed by his colleagues’ inaction with regard to Aspencrest.

Even if we had known the water was unsafe, my friends and I could have done little more than drag our feet when camp leaders told us to brush our teeth and refill water bottles from the tap at the end of the day. The specter of tainted drinking water didn’t top the list of our youthful concerns. We were more afraid that a mischievous friend might hide a certain notorious rubber snake in our beds.

But the lack of oversight no longer surprises me. In Utah, the power of the church is always felt, even among nonmembers.

It’s there in the fact that the church owns a portion of  Salt Lake City’s downtown Main Street — the actual street itself — and forbids public demonstrations there. It’s shown in the presence of church attorneys at government meetings that appear to have little to do with church interests.

A 2016 survey by The Salt Lake Tribune determined that LDS Church members outnumbered even Republicans in Utah’s traditionally conservative state Legislature; nine in 10 representatives are members. According to a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, approximately 50% of Utahns identify as LDS.

There is no LDS conspiracy to take over Utah’s government, but like Onysko, I’ve observed that state leaders often offer the church unasked-for favors, inspired simply by trust or admiration.

Questioning or criticizing church leadership is grounds for excommunication, and high-profile contrarians are frequently ejected from membership. In my experience, however, it is less fear than a desire to believe the church possesses an unassailable goodness that creates a culture for granting leniency to it.

As a faithful churchgoer, I was taught that LDS leaders were direct spokesmen for God. Their leadership positions are “callings” in church vernacular, assignments issued by a fatherly deity himself, and God, it is taught, would not allow his chosen leaders to lead the faithful astray. Many church members want — just as I did — to believe there is some fount of wisdom you can turn for moral clarity. And on a certain level, it makes sense. Former LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff is quoted in church instructional materials as saying God “would remove me out of my place” if he attempted to teach something contrary to God’s desires. The manual goes on to say that the statements of church leaders may even supersede biblical teachings and other forms of scripture, and that the top three church leaders have authority in all matters, regardless of their professional backgrounds.

According to the church’s instructional manual, God will excuse and even “bless” his followers for acting on the instructions of church leadership, even should the church be proven wrong.

So when Onysko showed me his documentation, I felt betrayed by my church. I had assumed, as did my family and church leaders, that Aspencrest was a place unspotted by the world — a safe place, where God, if not the church, would protect me from all harm. I should note that there have been no official reports of illness caused at the camp. I wouldn’t expect there to be.  I doubt that anyone, including me, would have ever blamed the camp if we’d gotten sick. We would have simply dismissed any illness as the product of something else. Maybe it was something in the “friendship stew.”

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