A months-long debate over whether to add a new disinfectant to the area’s water supply or implement a more expensive purification system came to a head last week as elected and appointed officials from four local regulatory bodies heard a final wave of impassioned arguments against the use of chloramines. By the end of the lengthy public hearing at the County Office Building Wednesday, policy makers acquiesced to public outcry, voting unanimously to take the objectionable chemicals off the table and instead explore the more costly alternative of a carbon filter. Chloramine opponents hailed it as a victory. But several on the dais made it clear it was outrage, not evidence, that guided their decisions—and some remain concerned about rising water costs.
The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority announced earlier this year that it planned to start using chloramines, a compound of chlorine and ammonia, as a secondary disinfectant—the chemical added to water to keep it clean as it travels between the treatment plant and the tap. The EPA is rolling out stricter regulations that scale back the amount of carcinogenic chlorine byproducts allowed in drinking water, and the RWSA said the cheapest way to stay in compliance was to swap out chlorine for the longer-lasting chloramine in the last stage of water treatment and delivery. Switching to the new chemical would cost an estimated $5 million, according to the RWSA.
But local residents began raising concerns, voicing their fears at a series of meetings: The chemicals could cause skin rashes and other acute reactions, can contribute to lead leaching from pipes, and can create harmful byproducts. These include nitrosamines, the same nasty carcinogens that doctors warn are found in much higher levels in cured meats, and hydrazine, used in pharmaceutical manufacturing and as rocket fuel.
A core group of city and county residents urged the RWSA and the elected officials who appoint its members to consider an alternative—a granular activated carbon system that would act like a giant Brita filter—and responded with rebuttals when the authority said such a project would cost more than $18 million.
Last week, with all the decision-makers in one place, the anti-chloramines crowd came out in force. More than 200 people filled Lane Auditorium in the County Office Building, where the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, the Albemarle County Service Authority, the Charlottesville City Council, and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors gathered to listen. For about three hours, dozens of people, many toting signs, offered the same concerns about the chemicals.
City resident Colette Hall said there are still too many questions. “The EPA says chloramines are safe,” she said. “But what will they say in 10 years?”
Sarah Vose has heard that argument—and many more. Vose is Vermont’s state toxicologist, and she’s had a front-row seat as the debate over chloramines has unfolded there. When one Vermont water district switched to chloramines in 2006, complaints started rolling in, and vocal anti-chloramine groups started bringing up the same concerns about acute reactions and long-term byproducts heard here.
Things got so heated that Vermont’s health department invited the Centers for Disease Control to conduct a public health study in the Champlain area. But results were inconclusive, and a survey of 172 area physicians turned up only two who said they believed patients had been affected by the water.
Vose explained that a little understanding of water chemistry goes a long way in dispelling many chloramine concerns. The chemical’s cancer-causing byproducts only form under certain unlikely conditions, she said—specifically, when the pH is about 10 times more alkaline than baking soda. Lead leaching and the formation of potentially dangerous chloramine compounds also only occur at pH levels outside the normal drinking water range, she said.
“There are a lot of things in our environment that we should be concerned about,” she said. But when people go at the issue from the gut, it’s not easy to argue back with science alone. “It’s hard to communicate that when people have already convinced themselves that it’s toxic,” Vose said.
After receiving thousands of complaints and listening to residents for hours last week, some officials said they felt the need to protect against perceived dangers, if not real ones.
Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos said she wasn’t convinced the chemicals were harmful, but said she saw value in paying more for the public’s peace of mind. “It didn’t pose a clear and imminent danger to use chloramines,” she said. “But being known for something different—that is important in this community.”
The more palatable alternative put forward by RWSA director Tom Frederick was a hybrid system in which a limited carbon filter would be used to reduce the need for chlorine in the water, bringing down the total byproducts but avoiding the need for more disinfectant. The vote to explore the alternative with a three-week, $9,500 study was unanimous, but the jury’s still out on how much extra cost officials will be willing to swallow. Frederick said the final tab would likely fall somewhere between the $5 million chloramines would cost and the $18.3 million projected for a full-scale carbon system. The most expensive option would raise the average water bill in the area from $1.20 to $4.83 per month, he said.
Dave Thomas of the Albemarle County Service Authority said that if the estimate comes in on the high end, he’s still going to question the sense of going forward without strong evidence that chloramines cause problems.
“Any time you do a public works project, you’re balancing the best possible outcome with the price the community can bear,” said Thomas, and there are many local families for whom any extra cost is a burden. He offered an analogy: Local officials had the option to go for a cheap sedan or a luxury car. “We went with the Audi A6,” he said. “Look around the parking lot at Western Albemarle, and you don’t see that many Audi A6s.”