The biggest issue facing City Manager John Hiskey when he went to work Oct. 4 was conversion of the community's garbage collection service to an automated system.
But that afternoon, after he and a South Jordan city official were briefed on an analysis of soils in an insignificant dry creek bed, Hiskey was suddenly confronted by an environmental hazard that threatened to command his attention for years to come."Sharon Steel flashed through my mind," Hiskey recalled, referring to a contaminated industrial site that has become a bureaucratic and legal morass in neighboring Midvale.
In the towns of West Jordan and South Jordan, the operative name is "Bingham Creek" - or "the `B' word," as it is being called by city workers. The 14-mile-long, usually dry channel that wends down from the Oquirrh Mountains, past a trailer park and through tidy new subdivisions is lined with dangerous amounts of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.
Soil samples taken from the creek bed revealed lead levels as high as 30,500 parts per million, which is 30,000 ppm higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable and at least five times higher than the average concentrations at Sharon Steel.
State environmental health officials were so shocked by the figures that they immediately notified the affected local governments and advised them to alert residents to the danger.
Suburban agencies and town officials who specialize in the delivery of routine municipal services were being asked to understand and cope with a serious and potentially long-term environmental problem.
Friday afternoon, for example, West Jordan's city council chambers were filled with the cries of children being tested for lead in their blood. On Thursday, the blood tests were administered at Welby Elementary School in South Jordan.
Elected officials who normally respond to questions about potholes and street lights have had to field scientific and medical questions from concerned residents and the media. And those officials, in turn, are seeking more answers from the experts.
"They are asking all the right questions," said state environmental health director Ken Alkema. "We have had a good partnership with them from the first day."
With the cooperation of the two towns, fliers informing people of the risks and cautioning them to stay away from the creek were distributed the day after the briefing. A town meeting was held five days later. Alkema said the speed with which the information was presented to the public is unprecedented.
"We've been able to do better in this case because we've learned from past experiences," Alkema said. "We are trying to make sure that the public has all the information we have."
Not that investigators have much information yet. Earlier this week, scientists collected another 150 soil samples along Bingham Creek to determine the extent of the contamination. And the results of the blood tests will tell them whether that contamination has affected the health of the more than 100 children who live and play near the creek.
South Jordan City Manager Richard Warne said the communities are calmly assessing the available information and waiting for more. "Naturally, you would always like these things to move faster than they do, but we feel that the health officials have acted expeditiously and have been open with us."
Coping with Bingham Creek hasn't affected city budgets yet, but - depending on the results of all the tests - it may eventually hit them hard. Just fencing the creek on city property would cost West Jordan about $60,000, which is a lot of money to a small town.
"We just don't know yet what it will take," said Hiskey, "but we will do what we have to to ensure the health and safety of residents."
Speaking from his years of experience with Sharon Steel, Midvale Mayor Everett Dahl said his neighbors to the west can expect to devote a lot of time and effort to the problem.
"We never sat down to figure out how much time we've spent on Sharon Steel in meetings and legal discussions and fighting the EPA, but it has used up a lot," he said.
And Dahl warns West Jordan and South Jordan that a major environmental problem can seriously tarnish a community's image, which is a thought that has already occurred to officials in those towns.
Hiskey, however, is confident that if the towns deal with the Bingham Creek contamination quickly, effectively and openly, their reputations as good places to live and work will emerge not only unscathed, but improved.