Susan Pickford said chloramines can cause skin rashes and other health problems.
Activists Lorrie Delehanty and Julia Whiting line up to question the wisdom of putting chloramines in local drinking water.
photo by lisa provence
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.