In the aftermath of a well-attended symposium in June on alternatives for public drinking water treatment, area officials are preparing to hold a joint meeting to receive public comment from the Charlottesville-Albemarle community.
The public hearing is being held July 25 in response to concerns about one of the water treatment approaches, the use of chloramines. Since the public became aware of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority’s March 2011 decision to use chloramines, some concerned residents have advocated for alternatives like carbon filtration.
Now some of the elected officials who will make the final decision say they are looking forward to the public feedback and reaching consensus on changes that must be made to comply with federal mandates.
Balancing public safety with increasing prices is on the minds of local representatives.
“You can say no cost is too high [to ensure safety], but we make those decisions all the time,” Albemarle Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said. “There’s a point at which you do draw the line and say, ‘Well perhaps the additional cost is not worth the increase in safety.’”
A RWSA consultant, Hazen and Sawyer, estimates the installation of chloramines will initially cost about $5 million with an additional $102,000 per year to operate. The next most-affordable option is granular activated carbon (GAC), which Hazen and Sawyer estimates will have an upfront cost of $18.3 million and cost $983,000 per year to operate.
Chloramines opponents believe the benefits of GAC filtration are worth the additional cost.
“Just because Charlottesville and Albemarle County had the misfortune of qualifying for the cheapest solution … doesn’t mean we have to take it over the safest one,” May Liao, a county resident, said during Wednesday’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin and County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd are both representatives on the RWSA’s board and have been in contact with the staffs of Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, to arrange a meeting with the EPA to answer their questions about chloramines.
“Kathy and I have been trying for some time now to arrange a meeting with the EPA to see why exactly they want us to do this because we feel that we have very safe water,” Boyd said. “We were very anxious to have somebody with EPA to come participate [on the panel] but they wouldn’t send anybody … which was discouraging because I think people wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth as to why this is being required.”
Galvin expressed concern about how increased water costs associated with GAC could impact the community as a whole.
“It is my understanding that employers and large customers such as [the University of Virginia], government and the hospitals could pay more per year since they are large water users,” Galvin said in an email. “Will this lead to cost cutting and layoffs?”
In addition, some representatives remain unsure of the harmful qualities of chloramines.
“Seventy percent of Virginia is using chloramines. I have not seen what I would call empirical evidence from places that are actually using chloramines in the water to support the horror stories,” Rooker said. “The question is not whether there are five people who got rashes. It’s how much does that occur in a large population and does it outstrip the kind of reactions you might see from our alternatives.”
Boyd also had confidence in the testimonial provided by Jerry Higgins, superintendant manager of the Blacksburg-area water authority, at last month’s Safe Water Symposium.
“We did not experience a problem, at least not one that is serious or comes to the forefront,” Higgins said at the event.
“That to me was a very compelling story,” Boyd said. “And that’s after seven years of using them.”
Not convinced was local medical researcher Lori Delehanty. Speaking to the Albemarle supervisors, Delehanty said, in effect, ignorance is bliss in Blacksburg.
“In seven years there have been four articles about chloramines [in Blacksburg],” Delehanty said. “They have been short. They have been put in after the fact. I doubt if anybody really knows that chloramine is being used there.”
However, representatives are waiting to hear from the public until they make a decision on what path they believe the RWSA should take.
“The more people we hear from the better because if I had my druthers I would have a survey done of water customers in the area to determine how that whole population feels about this choice,” Rooker said. “One-hundred people with an intense interest do not necessarily represent the entire group.”
“I’m very open minded and interested in hearing from the public,” Boyd said. “I’m hoping that after that public hearing the ‘four boards’ will be able to come to some sort of consensus and be able to move forward on this, whatever way we choose to go.”
The “four boards” involved in the drinking water process, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, the Charlottesville City Council, the Albemarle County Service Authority and the RWSA will host the public hearing on July 25 at 7:00 p.m. in the Lane Auditorium at the Albemarle County Office Building-McIntire.