Craig officials work to assuage water woes after social media backlash
February 28, 2019
The city of Craig is in a serious struggle to keep its water system in compliance with state water quality laws, and a single mother turned environmental justice celebrity has taken notice.
Erin Brockovich — whose court battle and eventual victory against a California gas and electric company cast her story onto the silver screen in a role played by Julia Roberts — blasted the city of Craig in a December social media post obtained by the Craig Press. Brockovich claimed Craig’s recent decision to treat the city’s water system with monochloramine is a bad idea, because some disinfection byproducts from the chemical, including nitrosamines, are many times more toxic than the ones formed by chlorine.
“These nitrosamine (ammonia) compounds will soon be regulated sending you back to the drawing board, but being poisoned in the meantime,” Brockovich wrote in her post. “Chloramine use cause both immediate and long-term health effects, destroys rubber gaskets and O-rings in you appliances and fixtures, plumbing corrosion, nitrification, biofouling, environmental damage, and weaker system security. Don’t be fooled. Many water system across the country that converted have stopped and converted back to free chlorine. As it looks right now, you will be paying more for less quality (dangerous) water quality.”
Craig’s struggle with water quality began in earnest in 2016, when the state gave the city four years, until April 2020, to comply with new regulations and avoid fines as high as $30,000 per day.
“We couldn’t just increase the chlorine, or then you’d have to worry about disinfection by-products,” said Mark Sollenberger, city of Craig water/wastewater director.
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Instead, the city hired an engineering firm based in Glenwood Springs — SGM — which developed a cost-effective solution using monochloramine, a longer-lasting version of chlorine, as a secondary disinfectant, along with upgrades to reduce the time water is stored.
The project is expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the project, as well as others meant to improve water and wastewater treatment systems.
New rates were adopted by a unanimous vote of the Craig City Council on Dec. 11. According to a letter City Manager Peter Brixius sent to customers, the in-town residential rate of $2.90 per 1,000 gallons of water increased to $2.96 per 1,000 gallons of water in 2019, while the base rate for water of $28.50 per month moved to $29.10. Brixius said that, by 2023, the anticipated rate increase for 1,000 gallons of water will stop at $3.20, and the base rate will stop at $31.50. After 2023, Brixius said, the city should be able to sustain these rates for several years.
In the wake of Brockovich’s social media post and subsequent online backlash, city officials sought to make SGM’s water quality engineer available for another public presentation on the city’s water plan Tuesday, Feb. 26.
“The city's distribution system is really big, and there's a lot of organic carbon in your water,” said Rick Huggins, drinking water engineer with SGM, on Tuesday.
When that organic carbon makes contact with monochloramine or chlorine, the resulting reaction is causing the city headaches, according to Huggins.
“When organic carbon reacts with chlorine or monochloramine, it produces disinfectant byproducts, which are regulated,” Huggins said. “Some are regulated. Some are not. That's the general driver for this project. The other one is that reaction between organic carbon and chlorine also uses up chlorine, and so the actual regulation that the city is not able to comply with currently is that, due to high water age in the system and high organic carbon, all of your free chlorine that you currently use for disinfectant residual is just consumed, and it goes away, and so you don't meet the minimum requirements.”
In Brockovich’s post, she also suggested many cities have decided to switch from monochloramine back to free chlorine due to the toxicity of monochloramine’s disinfection byproducts. But in an email, Brixius said city staff has already tested “several bench-scale analysis using monochloramine with our treated water” and found it to be the most feasible, safe method of treating Craig’s water.
“Erin B. indicated that the federal government has not established MCL's (maximum contaminant level) for nitrosamine,” Brixius said. “That is correct. I think part of the reason for this is probably because monochloramine solves a problem that many systems have when using free chlorine; aging water and the formation of trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. These disinfection by-products (DBPs) are formed with the use of free chlorine in the presence of dissolved organic carbon (DOC). The life cycle of free chlorine is shorter than monochloramine, and seasonally, we have a higher DOC that naturally occurs in the river in late summer. To increase the use of free chlorine in order to boost our system we risk exceeding the regulated DBP level. This creates another problem.”
“We all feel very strongly that the city would then be in another regulatory challenge,” Huggins said of switching back to free chlorine.
Such a switch would cost several times more than the additional $5 to $6 per month on every tap user’s water bill the city has already implemented under SGM’s plan.
“When you talk about adding $17 to $20 or $25 per month (per tap user), you've gotta ask that question, 'is it even worth it to add this expense and process at your plant, or should you be done with it and build a new plant that's set up differently?' Huggins said. “At the end of the day, monochloramines are cheap and effective in dealing with the current regulatory atmosphere.”
As for disinfection byproducts such as nitrosamines, Huggins said there’s still much research to be done toward understanding their effect on human health. He said nitrosamines exist in small quantities in the environment and food, especially in beer and tobacco. There’s ongoing work to fully understand disinfection byproducts like nitrosamines, according to Huggins.
“A lot of them, we don't fully understand if they're an issue or not,” Huggins said. “A lot of people in the government and academic world are working to figure that out.”
In a review of studies of the human health impacts of monochloramine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported no observations of health effects from drinking water with chloramine levels less than 50 mg/L in drinking water. Normal levels for drinking water disinfection range from 1.0 to 4.0 mg/L.
“Skin, eye, and respiratory problems have been linked to dichloramine and trichloramine exposure in relation to indoor swimming pools and hot tubs. However, dichloramine and trichloramine are typically not an issue in treated drinking water, which uses monochloramine, because utilities carefully monitor the water quality,” according to the CDC.
Dialysis uses large amounts of water that must be free of all chemical disinfectants, including chlorine and chloramine.
“Home dialysis users should consult the machine manufacturer for instructions on how to properly treat their water before use. Individuals who have health concerns should seek medical advice from their health care provider before contacting their local health department,” the CDC recommended.
Should nitrosamines become a regulated disinfectant byproduct, Brixius said, the city will have to adapt to and overcome those regulatory challenges.
“Should nitrosamine become a regulated DBP, it will depend on what level they choose to regulate as to what future improvements we might have to make to the treatment process,” Brixius said.
Brockovich did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.
Sasha Nelson contributed to this report. Contact Clay Thorp at 970-875-1795 or cthorp@CraigDailyPress.com.