Fluid debate: Citizens press experts on chloramine in water

Two weeks ago– before UVA President Teresa Sullivan's forced resignation roiled Charlottesville and beyond– the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority's plan to add a controversial chemical to the water supply was the hot topic in town. And while thousands have gathered on the Lawn in the past week, a safe water forum held June 21 managed to draw over 100 citizens to learn more about chloramines.

The Authority's 2011 decision to use chloramines, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia responsible for massive lead-leaching in Washington, D.C. and skyrocketing levels of lead in children there, initially flew under the radar, and even some of those who granted approval, like Albemarle Supervisor Ken Boyd, say they weren't aware of the hazardous side effects experienced in other communities. Hence the Thursday night public forum more than a year later.

Spotted among the crowd at Lane Auditorium were Boyd and fellow supes Duane Snow, Ann Mallek, and Dennis Rooker, and city councilors Dave Norris, Kathy Galvin, and Mayor Satyendra Huja. Those elected bodies will receive public comment in July in a joint meeting with the two water authorities– RWSA and Albemarle County Service Authority.

Rivanna chair Mike Gaffney noted that recently-tightened Environmental Protection Agency requirements were the impetus to add chloramines to local drinking water as a secondary disinfectant. He pointed out that 5.7 million people in Virginia already drink chloraminated water and that implementation is 70 percent complete.

Including two vocal opponents to chloramines, there were eight experts on the panel.

"We've had no problems," said Jerry Higgins, manager of the Blacksburg-Christianburg-VPI Water Authority, which added chloramines in 2005. He said he was complimented on efforts to get word out to the general public including those most affected by chloramines: pet shops, people with fish, and dialysis patients. Chloramines kill fish, and treated water can't be used in dialysis.

"We waited to see what would happen, and pretty much nothing happened," said Higgins.

Also coming from the Virginia Tech region was civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, who attempted to reassure Charlottesville water drinkers that lead is not expected to leach here, but he conceded that the change would exchange one set of disinfectant byproducts with another about which not much is known.

He compared the lower cost chloramines with carbon filtration, a more costly alternative without the byproducts, and told the attendees: "Things are going to turn out fine either way."

"Our job as consultants is not to push a specific technology," stressed Ben Stanford, with the firm Hazen and Sawyer, which worked for Rivanna. He acknowledged there are a lot of questions about the new byproducts produced by chloramines. "What we don't want to say is that chloramines are a panacea," he added.

Susan Pickford from the Chloramine Info Center in Pennsylvania challenged the notion that EPA standards demanded the change and disputed the notion that local water already needs such disinfection. "Don't let the threat of EPA regs cause you to put chloramines in your water," she said, to audience applause.

Bob Bowcock, a former Metropolitan Water District manager in Southern California who has worked with Erin Brockovich, the famed whistle-blower on contaminated water, warned of corrosion caused by chloramines of copper pipes and rubber gaskets in toilets, dishwashers, and laundry machines. He also said that estimates presented for carbon filtration are often "ridiculously" high.

"Beware," he ended ominously.

The RWSA-paid Stanford drew the most questions from the audience. Since some chloramine-using communities have experienced pinhole pipe leaks in pipes and ruined appliances, Charlottesville-based medical researcher Lorrie Delehanty asked him if RWSA would create a fund to cover potential health and property damage.

"I cannot answer for RWSA," said Stanford.

And Barbara Cruickshank seemed to speak for many in the audience when she said, "I think what we want is proof of safety rather than that they're not unsafe."

The Board of Supervisors, City Council, Rivanna Water & Sewer, and Albemarle County Water Authority will hold a joint public hearing July 25 at 7pm at the County Office Building on 5th Street.


"Bob Bowcock, a former Metropolitan Water District manager in Southern California... also said that estimates presented for carbon filtration are often "ridiculously" high."

A ridiculously high estimate of the costs of an alternative to their favored plan. RWSA would ... never...do....that....... would they? I mean we can trust Tom Frederick and company completely can't we? Can't we?

The cleanest water in out system (and some of the cleanest in the state) came from Sugar Hollow, but the RWSA couldn't be bothered to maintain the pipeline because doing so cut into their arguments for a new giant reservoir. Now we get to drink farm runoff treated with toxins instead.

This article may give some the impression that some people said this, and some said that, so we don't really know what the truth is.
Actually, the truth is pretty straightforward. It was clear on Thursday that using Chloramines CAN cause substantial health problems, including lead and copper leaching, and the formation of extremely toxic byproducts. The only debate was over whether we here in Charlottesville will have these problems if we use chloramines, given our specific conditions. Further, it was clear that granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration would meet the EPA's regulations, and would avoid all these potential problems, as well as provide added benefits. The only debate about GAC was about how much it would cost.
So, do we ADD a chemical with many unknowns to our water to clean it, OR do we filter out bad stuff mechanically, which we know will provide the highest quality drinking water?
I would like to be clear that this is the BEST argument the pro-chloramine panelists could make, in SUPPORT of chloramines, NOT the arguments of the anti- chloramine panelists. Oh, except the pro-chloramine folks also used that oldie but goodie - "everyone's doing it".
Sign the petition against chloramines:
You can also email the Board of Supervisors and City Council, and come to the public hearing on July 25th!

You can listen to the whole June 21st forum here: http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/files/20120621-rwsa-chloramines-panel.mp3

Someone should ask Hazen & Sawyer, who was represented on the panel, if Hazen & Sawyer is the company that would build the infrastructure for a switch to chloramine and if so, how much they stand to make. If it's true, how is it that a representative from the H&S would be on the panel- conflict of interest? If you listen to the audio of the forum, during the Q&A part, he's the one who prefaced his answers many times with, "That's a beautiful question" and also, "I'm glad you asked that question."

The questions no pro-chloramine official on the panel could answer were:
Where are the health studies for the skin, respiratory, and digestive effects of chloraminated public drinking water and where are the epidemiological studies? There are none and they know it. There are only two ways pro-chloramine officials give for chloramine's safety are: 1. It's been used since the Stone Age and no one's complained (ANECDOTAL and not true, which they know all too well, anyway) and 2. There are no studies on chloramine in drinking water, which they also are painfully aware of.

Chloramine appears to cause skin, respiratory, and digestive symptoms, some life threatening, in a part of the population everywhere it is used. There are citizen groups popping up all over the U.S., finding each other and comparing the types of symptoms we are documenting after a conversion to chloramine. The symptoms are ALL skin, respiratory, and/or digestive. Chloramine sufferers demonstrate cause and effect by stopping exposing themselves to chloramine, which is complicated and expensive- water is in everything. They go off the water, see what happens to their symptoms, which go away in every case we've documented, then go back on the water and see if symptoms come back, and in every instance people have done this, they see their symptoms return.

Pro-chloramine officials scoff at this as being "anecdotal", which it is. (And this anecdotal evidence is also overwhelming.) Two things about that: 1. They refuse to do studies, and 2. they choose to provide anecdotal evidence as an argument to prove chloramine is safe. ANECDOTALLY SPEAKING, YOU CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS.

Click on my name and watch Vermont chloramine sufferers testify to EPA and CDC officials about their symptoms.