Charlottesville’s latest water controversy ended in unusual unanimity July 25 when the Board of Supervisors and City Council, plus the two water boards, rejected the use of chloramines in the community water supply after around 50 citizens implored elected officials to just say no to the controversial chemical.
More than 200 people packed the Albemarle County Office Building for the hearing on the chloramines plan, which several of these same officials approved. Some later claimed, when citizens began raising concerns earlier this year, they didn’t realize what they’d done.
A combination of chlorine and ammonia, chloramines were originally approved locally in May 2011 as the cheaper alternative to meet stringent upcoming standards by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Chloramines are used safely in 76 percent of the public water supplies in Virginia, according to Tom Frederick, executive director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. However, chloramines are also the chemical that caused the dangerous heavy metal lead to leach out of pipes and into Washington D.C. children, whose lead levels skyrocketed. Other communities have reported outbreaks of rashes and other health problems, as well as corroded pipes.
Frederick said the water authority’s original choice was based on cost– $9.3 million for chloramines compared to over $18 million for a filtration system called granular activated carbon, which adds no chemicals to the water.
Since the controversy began raging, a hybrid third alternative arose: a system that would carbon-filter portions of the water supply and blend the filtered water with traditional chlorine-treated water.
“There is no panacea,” Frederick cautioned the four boards at the beginning of the three-hour event. “There is no silver bullet.”
Local resident Pat Napoleon, the first of 50 to address their elected officials along with the boards of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority and the Albemarle County Service Authority, said chloramines “are not a good fit for an enlightened community.”
“I shall not personally drink the water,” said Napoleon, adding that she wouldn’t allow her cat to drink it either.
“It’s better to remove chemicals than add them,” urged Tom Olivier, chair of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club.
For more than two hours, citizens expressed outrage and concerns that included the allegation that Hazen and Sawyer, the consulting firm that provided the $18-million carbon filtration estimate, was “ripping us off.” However, unlike a previous Rivanna controversy that involved allegations of hyper-inflated alternatives and consultants who later won design contracts, a Hazen and Sawyer official noted that the firm would not be bidding on any resulting infrastructure.
One glaring fact hovering over the Wednesday night meeting is that no human studies have ever been conducted on chloramines, and several citizens pointed out that substances once deemed safe, like asbestos and thalidomide, turned out to be toxic nightmares.
Albemarle resident Bob McAdams noted that as a child he played with mercury, a heavy metal now widely understood as a potent toxin.
“Chloraminated water will kill fish,” said McAdams. “That’s a bad sign.”
One woman traveled from Vermont to describe an intimate experience with chloramines. “As soon as I showered,” she said, “my skin would break out.”
Supervisor Dennis Rooker noted he’d heard from over 1,000 people objecting to the chloramines. “I don’t think I’ve heard from two people saying, ‘I’d like to use chloramines.'”
The Board of Supervisors was the first to approve a $9,500 study to explore launching a hybrid system in “baby steps.” City Council quickly okayed the study.
At one point, two supervisors, Ken Boyd and Duane Snow, floated the idea of going rogue and doing nothing to the water supply, which complies with current EPA standards, but Rivanna chief Frederick minced no words.
“That, to me,” said Frederick, “is appalling that any entity would choose that path.”
After all boards gave thumbs up to the hybrid study, which would take place in the next three weeks, Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Mallek had another proposal: “I would like to make a statement with the board that we would not like to use chloramines.” Rooker, another who played with mercury as a youth, agreed.
“Even as the highest cost alternative,” said Rooker, “I think this community would prefer granular activated carbon. At the end of the day, you want water with the least amount of chemicals in it.”
Snow moved to take chloramines off the table, and the Board of Supervisors yayed the motion, to the applause of the audience.
After City Councilor Kristin Szakos gave props to the once chloramine-condoning RWSA board– “I don’t think they were an evil cabal trying to poison the water”– the Councilors also voted to ditch chloramines. (Even City Councilor Kathy Galvin, who at an April meeting told chloramine opponents that “we need to move on,” supported the move.)
The only whispers against the tide were two members of the Albemarle County Service Authority who raised concerns about the cost of carbon filtration. David Thomas noted that while the Audi A6 gets stellar safety ratings, such pricey vehicles don’t populate local high school parking lots. “Parents,” said Thomas, “make decisions on cost and safety every day.”
Boyd, who’s also on the Rivanna board, directed the Authority to find the most economical granular activated carbon system, and the two water boards joined the sweep of public sentiment against chloramines.
“Isn’t it great,” said City Councilor Dede Smith, “when city and county agree?”