Officials end consideration of chloramines for water treatment

The “four boards” that manage the community water supply held a rare joint meeting Wednesday to discuss changes to local water treatment systems to ensure continued compliance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

An audience of more than 200 people filled the Albemarle County Office Building to share its views on the future of water treatment for Charlottesville-Albemarle’s urban supply. The debate centered on a choice between adding chloramines or using carbon filtration.

At the end of the meeting, the boards unanimously voted to take chloramines off the table and pursue a carbon filtration system that will have to be studied further over the next year.

What preceded the surprising definitive action was citizens speaking loud and clear. More than 40 speakers all asked that chemicals not be added to local drinking water and some called for consideration of alternative approaches, preferably ones that remove even more contaminants.

“Chloramines is not a good fit for an enlightened community,” said city resident Pat Napoleon. “If such a cocktail is added to our drinking water, there are too many unknowns. It may take decades for us to learn some people are harmed.”

Crowded onto the dais sat 19 of the 22 appointed and elected officials who comprise the boards of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority and the Albemarle County Service Authority, plus the Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. The other three officials couldn’t fit on the stage.

Galen Staengl, a city resident with a background in chemical engineering, arrived before the hearing to finalize his remarks.

“Most water experts agree that … using chloramines as a water treatment chemical will likely be regulated by EPA in the next couple of years,” Staengl said in an interview. “So if we chose to use chloramines, we are investing in an approach that is probably going to be out of date in two-to-five years.”

Chloramines are created by combining chlorine and ammonia and are intended to prevent pathogens from growing within the water distribution system. In February, the RWSA approved a $5 million capital project to put chloramines in public water as a secondary disinfectant. Chlorine is and would remain the primary disinfectant.

RWSA consultant Hazen and Sawyer also evaluated alternatives to chloramines. Among the options considered, granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration has gained the widest support among residents speaking out on the issue.

Citizens outlined a litany of concerns from their own research on the use of chloramines. As with the recently debated water supply plan, consultant cost estimates and previously discarded alternatives are both once again under the community microscope.

“People have a visceral reaction around the issue of safe water,” said county resident Anita Holmes. “To many of the folks here tonight this is a no-brainer. The important thing to remember is this isn’t about money, it’s about water, the source of life on our planet.”

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress
Four Boards meeting on water treatment options held July 25, 2012

RWSA Executive Director Thomas L. Frederick Jr. says the $18.3 million cost estimate for GAC is based on the urban water treatment plants running 365 days a year at their full treatment capacity. At recent meetings, Frederick has offered a third alternative that would be a cheaper and more limited carbon filtration effort.

The hybrid option could involve running portions of treated water through carbon filtration systems, then combining it with regularly treated water for disinfection. Frederick also said that the traditional GAC system would take four years to install and could not be completed by the EPA’s 2014 deadline exposing the community to potential fines.

“It would take four years for GAC to be fully implemented, in which time we would have to maintain EPA requirements,” Frederick said in an interview. “This would involve changing chemical coagulants to ferric sulfate and powdered activated carbon.”

At Wednesday’s public hearing, activists shared information they said demonstrated that the full-scale carbon filtration system had been overpriced by Hazen and Sawyer.

A letter from Robert W. Bowcock was referenced that put the cost of carbon filtration closer to $6 million. Bowcock is an environmental investigator with California-based Integrated Resource Management who participated as panelist in the June Safe Water Symposium hosted by the RWSA.

“I feel pretty confident from his results that the actual cost of doing granular activated carbon is probably significantly lower than the cost estimate that has been provided at this point,” Staengl said.

“The way they approached it in Charlottesville was excessive,” Bowcock said in an interview, referring to Hazen and Sawyer’s projections. “I took those numbers and called around to my vendors and did a rough estimate.”

County resident May Liao said even the hybrid approach of using carbon filtration on a portion of the water supply would be sufficient.

“If partial GAC is what makes you decide not to use chloramine, that would be acceptable to many of us,” Liao said. “Charlottesville could be marketed as an oasis of unchloraminated water amidst all the Virginians in other cities who blindly follow the flock. We could proudly join the other thinking states and countries that actually discourage or minimize chloramines.”

NOTE: STORY UPDATED at 10:40 PM to reflect action taken by joint boards.