Debate Over Disinfecting Our Water - Chlorine or Chloramine? - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Debate Over Disinfecting Our Water - Chlorine or Chloramine?

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There's a debate bubbling up about how best to disinfect our drinking water. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) is planning to get rid of chlorine in 2014 in favor of a different disinfectant called chloramine, but not everyone is in favor of that change.

In order to satisfy new water safety guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the RWSA held a series of work sessions last year to determine the most effective and fiscally sound means of keeping our water clean.

"All water must be disinfected to meet certain EPA guidelines," said RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick. "We're not going to remain in compliance with more rigorous EPA standards by doing nothing."

Those work sessions yielded chloramine as an effective, and fiscally sound alternative to the "free chlorine" currently used. The EPA says free chlorine forms a series of disinfection by-products when it comes in contact with organic matter in water. If consumed in high quantities over an extended period of time, those by-products can be potentially harmful to human health.

New standards handed down to water utilities from the EPA mandate a reduction in the maximum allowed threshold of those by-products. In order to meet those requirements, some utilities like the RWSA are turning to chloramine, which has been shown to produce fewer EPA regulated by-products than free chlorine.

But a group in the Charlottesville area is speaking out in opposition of chloramine use, arguing it has other potentially harmful side-effects that the RWSA and the EPA have not acknowledged.

They are currently circulating a petition urging the RWSA, Charlottesville City Council, and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to reverse their decision to use chloramine. Among their complaints, the group says chloramine produces a host of different by-products that have not been adequately researched, and are not regulated by the EPA.

"A lot of the byproducts that have been created from the use of chloramine have not been well studied," said petition creator Galen Staengl.

"Chloramine forms its own disinfection byproducts that are about 1,000 times more toxic than those formed by chlorine," said medical researcher Lorrie Delehanty.  "Chloramine has a whole host of problems, and a whole host of unknown problems."

Activists are also concerned because they say chloramine is much more difficult to remove from tap water than chlorine. They want city and county leaders to hold a public forum to discuss the potential for other options, like a packed carbon bed secondary disinfectant system.

The RWSA says such a system would cost the city and county $18.3 million up front, and close to $1 million in annual maintenance. Compare that with the cost of chloramine, $5 million up front and about $100,000 annually.

A forum to discuss the details of chloramine is tentatively set for sometime in June. After that, the RWSA says it will revisit its decision. In the meantime, RWSA maintains chloramine is the best option available.

According to a private consultation by Hazen and Sawyer commissioned by the RWSA, Frederick said, "There is nothing that is proven out there that would suggest to us that there's something in the water that's going to cause significant problems in our community."

On top of that, chloramine is already being used in municipalities across the country, and right here in the commonwealth.

"Chloramine is now consumed in water by approximately 40 percent of the US population, and 76 percent of the population of Virginians," Frederick said. "EPA has determined that chloramine is actually a very safe alternative, the Virginia Department of Health approves it."

Ultimately, Frederick says he and the RWSA are doing the best they can to maintain the safety of our water.

"I have confidence, I drink the water and use it regularly," he said. "This community deserves the best water we can get, and we deserve not to fail."

No specific date or time has been set for the upcoming chloramine public forum.

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