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July 19, 2012

Avoiding chloramines in drinking water may boost public confidence in system

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Less than a week away from a major public hearing on water treatment and chloramines, the Albemarle County Service Authority heard from citizens on Thursday both for and against the proposal.

Now at least one of its members has come to the conclusion that avoiding chloramines may help maintain public confidence in the water supply.

20120719-Liao_May
Albemarle County resident May Liao

County resident May Liao started the conversation by encouraging the ACSA to give further scrutiny to the costs of one of the chloramines alternatives, granular activated carbon.

“It really seems like the only reason that people are doing this is for costs,” Liao said about the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority’s plan to use chloramines. “We have been working with … Integrated Resource Management, which suggests that Hazen & Sawyer’s numbers are greatly inflated.”

Hazen & Sawyer is the lead consultant working for the RWSA and California-based Integrated Resource Management’s Robert W. Bowcock participated in the June safe water symposium hosted by the authority.

“It would be great if we could get a further breakdown of how Hazen & Sawyer came up with those numbers,” Liao added. “Just as when you are remodeling a house, maybe we could get a third-party bid and not just trust this number that they are giving.”

In February, the RWSA approved a $5 million capital project to put chloramines in public water as a secondary disinfectant. Chlorine is and will remain the primary disinfectant. Chloramines was determined to be more cost effective than alternatives like GAC, which was estimated to cost $18.3 million.

RWSA executive director Thomas L. Frederick Jr. says the cost estimate for carbon filtration is based on the urban water treatment plants running 365 days a year at their full treatment capacity.

Chloramines are created by combining chlorine and ammonia and are intended to prevent pathogens from growing within the water distribution system. The RWSA says a new treatment approach is necessary to meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The ACSA also heard from former board member Jim Colbaugh. Colbaugh worked for 27 years at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, the last 10 years as its general manager.

“About 13 to 14 years ago we went from free chlorine to chloramines,” Colbaugh said about his experience in the Los Angeles area. “We never got a complaint and never [heard] anything about rashes or anything like that.”

Opponents of chloramines have warned that both known and unknown public health issues may be associated with the practice, including skin rashes. However, other water system managers, such as Jerry Higgins, manager of the Blacksburg Christiansburg VPI Water Authority, told the community they have experienced “absolutely zero” negative health effects over the past seven years.

Board member Dave Thomas said he hoped more scientific research could be put on the table before a decision is made.

“All the evidence I have heard to date against chloramines has been anecdotal at best,” Thomas said. “If we are going to make a change … from the much less expensive chloramines to a more expensive granular activated carbon filtration, I am going to need to see the science, the actual peer-reviewed science that says chloramines are, or even can be, dangerous.”

ACSA board member Liz Palmer announced Thursday that she had arrived at her position on the matter, having given further consideration to a third option involving more limited carbon filtration.

“I think that knowing that we have a pretty clean source of water … that it is highly unlikely that we will ever have a problem with chloramines,” Palmer said. “However, chloramines are going to cause problems in other systems, and that information is going to start coming out to the public…. Every time one of these things comes out in the news it’s going to be scary to a certain portion of our users.”

“That’s one of the things that really bothers me right now, the public confidence in our water system, and you want people to be confident and comfortable with the water that they are drinking,” Palmer said. “If [the RWSA] comes with the figures and says we can deal with the regulations by using carbon filtration on a limited scale, personally as one member of the board I would seriously be willing to consider [the extra costs].”

Frederick says the RWSA board could choose to pilot such an approach.

“If the board is looking for a way to use granular activated carbon only when needed to comply with EPA stage 2 rules, and only operate it intermittently, then there are ways to reduce operating costs,” Frederick said. “If board chooses that approach for further study, we could do pilot testing. I am not recommending this approach, but I did offer it to the board.”

The RWSA has said a decision needs to be made this summer to ensure EPA deadlines are met in 2014.

A public hearing on water treatment options will be held Wednesday by the four boards responsible for the local water supply — the RWSA, the ACSA, Charlottesville’s City Council and Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors. The meeting will be held in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building-McIntire starting at 7:00 p.m.

“There is interest among the members of the RWSA board to have some deliberations following the public hearing,” Frederick said. “If there is a consensus, they may vote, but they are keeping their options open depending on the discussion.”

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