Questioning authority: RWSA chloramine plan stirs water fears
Perhaps if the agenda had said, "Addition of strychnine to water supply," the matter might have gotten a lot more attention than it did a year ago when the water authority okayed the addition of a chemical that once sent lead levels skyrocketing in Washington, D.C.
"Chloramine" may sound like a mouthwash or a tasty new chewing gum, but even some of those who approved adding it to the water were unaware of the damage it had wreaked in other communities.
"It was brought to us as EPA requirements for upgrades," says Albemarle Supervisor Ken Boyd, who sits on the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. He was told most of the country uses chloramines as a water disinfectant– and it was the cheapest alternative. "I had no idea there was all this controversy."
What Boyd says he didn't know was what chloramines– a mixture of chlorine and ammonia– did in Washington, D.C. They were added to the capital city's water system without the necessary corrosion inhibitors and began leaching lead out of pipes and into the public. Copper pipes started turning up with pinhole leaks. More ominously, children started showing astronomical levels of the toxic element. Lead exposure has been linked to life-long setbacks in behavioral health and cognition, as well as to kidney damage, high blood-pressure, and other harms.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, chloramines have been in use for 90 years, mostly without any disastrous health, water infrastructure, and environmental consequence, although fish may die when there is a spill.
"About 40 percent of Americans, and 76 percent of Virginians today drink and use chloraminated water, and the overall track record of these utilities is highly successful," says RWSA executive director Tom Frederick in an emailed response to questions from the Hook. Charlottesville and Albemarle's drinking water is safe, assures Frederick.
So why the change?
"[B]ecause EPA is changing the standards for byproducts of disinfection, and we are required by law to meet their requirements," says Frederick, who plans to convert to chloramines in 2014.
Water disinfection is a two-step process. Currently the system uses chlorine for both primary and secondary disinfection, according to the RWSA's primer on this topic. Chlorine is a highly effective disinfectant, and it dissipates after 24 to 48 hours. However, it also creates byproducts, and upcoming EPA byproduct standards are the reason that Rivanna cites for going to chloramines.
"[W]e have a legal duty to comply with EPA’s regulations," says Frederick. "Several citizens have contacted us who like the water now and do not want the new EPA regulations, and we have suggested they can express their views to their Congressmen and Senators who establish what EPA is responsible for."
That's what Boyd did. When contacted by the Hook June 7, he says he (along with City Councilor Kathy Galvin) had just gotten off a conference call with Senator Mark Warner and Representative Robert Hurt "to see if we can get some relief from the EPA."
Some officials remain skeptical that chloramines are necessary to meet EPA standards.
"I've seen the data," says City Councilor Dede Smith. "My take is, do we even need to do this?"
Part of the change at the EPA is how the byproduct numbers are averaged. Before, test results throughout the whole water supply would be averaged to meet acceptable EPA levels. The new regulations assert that individual test locations meet the specifications over four quarters, rather than be averaged in with lower numbers elsewhere in the system.
"You can chart where we've violated the standards," says Smith. "It almost never happens."
Smith points to a "little spate of violations in very specific locations" in 2011, all in the northern part of the system. "That tells me it's the North Fork Rivanna Station," she says.
"Maybe it should have a carbon filtration system," offers Smith, noting that Crozet and Scottsville will get such systems and be spared the change to chloramines because those two water systems don't have 24-hour monitoring.
"The benefit of carbon filtration is it doesn't add things to the water," says Smith. "It takes things out."
However, carbon filtration would have cost over $18 million in capital expense, according to Rivanna; and that's why the water authority went for the cheaper chloramines and added just $9.3 million to its capital budget, half of which will cover granular activated carbon for Scottsville and Crozet.
"My sense is if carbon filtration is good enough for Crozet and Scottsville, it's good enough for the urban water system," says City Councilor Dave Norris. "The cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars to do other improvements."
He's referring to the controversial Ragged Mountain dam and nine-mile uphill pipeline to pump water from the Rivanna Reservoir to fill it.
"When you're making such a major change, you need a thorough review and thorough public input," says Norris.
"The new EPA rules require compliance deadlines that do not allow for an extended period of public review, nevertheless, two months were provided for public input between March and May 2011," explains Frederick. "All of RWSA’s meetings and agendas are publicly advertised to provide opportunity for review and input."
"I can't fault the public because I didn't know, either," says Boyd, who joined the Rivanna board in voting unanimously to go forward with the chloramine option May 24, 2011. He says he's suggested to Frederick that in the future, the board be made aware of "favorable" and "unfavorable" conditions of potentially controversial agenda items.
Julia Whiting, a Charlottesville emergency room physician who notes that Poughkeepsie, New York, recently reversed its switch to chloramines, describes the water authority's claims that the EPA is pushing the change as "disingenuous."
She calls chloramine byproducts "horribly toxic" and much worse than chlorine byproducts. She says that fish and "everything down to earthworms" were killed in two Virginia chloramine spills.
"It's a classic in chemistry," says Charlottesville medical researcher Lorrie Delehanty. "Never mix chlorine and ammonia. That's what they're going to do and put chloramines in the water."
"Chloramines come in several different forms, depending on the ratio of chlorine to ammonia," responds Rivanna's Frederick. "Not all forms are recommended." He says the monochloramine used in drinking water "is very safe, stable, and effective."
Despite Rivanna and EPA assurances on the safety of chloramines, some citizens remain dubious and have started a petition to keep them out of the water supply.
"We are hearing from people all over the country," says Supervisor Boyd. "And in this world of the Internet, you can get all sorts of information."
Local officials will hold a public forum at 6pm on June 21 in the Albemarle County Office Building.
"Rather than the advocates, I'm going to listen to experts that aren't trying to push a certain view," says Boyd. "It's a Solomon's decision."