Local activists opposed to the use of chloramines in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County urban water supply held a “teach-in” Monday to share their concerns about risks to public health and safety. Organizers said they wanted to give the public a comprehensive look at the $5 million water treatment method being recommended by the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.

“This is the first opportunity for concerned citizens to learn about the upsides and the risks the addition of chloramines would pose to the regional water supply,” said city resident and medical researcher Lorrie Delehanty.

Monday’s forum was sponsored by Transition Charlottesville-Albemarle, a grassroots group affiliated with the global Transition Initiative, which seeks to work “toward sustainable local systems of food, goods, energy, communication and culture.” About 25 people came to the meeting at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library on Market Street.

Delehanty was invited to share her research and a presentation from the Chloramines Information Center. She told the audience that the health risks of chloramines are significant.

“Short-term health effects include persistent skin rashes from shower water,” Delehanty said. “There can also be asthma-like symptoms as the chloramine heats up in a hot shower.”

Delehanty was asked what would happen if a home fish pond was filled from a hose.

“All your fish will die,” Delehanty responded. “If a [water] line breaks, it ends up killing everything downstream.”

Meanwhile, the RWSA insists chloramines are a safe and cost-effective way to meet new standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is requiring further limits on the level of disinfectant byproducts in drinking water which can react with organic material found naturally in water and pose health risks.

Chloramines are created by combining chlorine and ammonia, as a secondary disinfectant after first using chlorine, and are intended to prevent pathogens from growing within the water distribution system.

Although chloramines are in wide use in Virginia, approved by the EPA and recommended by the World Health Organization, activists Monday called for more scientific study.  

Dr. Julia Whiting, a city resident and emergency medicine physician on the panel, said this community needs to learn from Washington D.C.’s mistakes with lead poisoning caused by chloramines.

“Chloramines cause pipe corrosion and that led to the lead in the water,” Whiting said. “Whether you have old plumbing or new, it’s going to be a problem.”

The RWSA is holding its own Safe Water Symposium Thursday and its panel will include a variety of water experts, some of whom oppose chloramines. The event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Lane Auditorium at the Albemarle County Office Building-McIntire and audience questions will be addressed.

Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin has been trying to get an official with the EPA to participate. Galvin represents the city on the RWSA board and she was joined by the county’s elected representative, Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, in a recent conference call with staff for Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

“There are some concerns the EPA is not being reasonable, that it hasn’t done its own scientific due diligence and that it’s not funding this mandate,” Galvin said. “We are trying to turn over every stone. I don’t have any reason not to trust our engineers, so we need to go back to the source, the EPA.”

Delehanty said she hoped Monday’s preview of the chloramines issue would spur people to think about questions to pose at the RWSA meeting.

After voting in February to approve the chloramines project, the RWSA board and staff have put it on hold until after the information session. A public hearing on the matter is also expected to be held by the four boards responsible for the local water supply — the RWSA, the Albemarle County Service Authority, Charlottesville’s City Council and Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors — when they meet July 25.

The capital cost associated with chloramination is $5 million. The next most-affordable option evaluated by RWSA consultant Hazen & Sawyer is granular activated carbon filtration, which is estimated to cost $18.3 million.

Panelist Galen Staengl, a city resident with a background in chemical engineering, advocated for the carbon filtration approach.

“The reason we think granular activated carbon is a better idea is because it just creates cleaner water,” Staengl said. “Granular activated carbon takes out the dissolved particles that are still in the water and cleans the water out even more.”

“I think we should be asking ‘What’s the best approach to create the cleanest water we can afford?’ I certainly think we can afford GAC,” concluded Staengl.

Galvin said she was looking forward to Thursday’s forum.

“I feel the public has every right to ask questions, and it’s our job to provide an opportunity for them so they can get the answers,” Galvin said. “When it became clear to me that this was a general concern of the public, and not just a small group of activists, it made me realize that there was a genuine public health concern.”