Chloramines clamor brings out cross crowd

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press
Friday, January 23, 2009.

Valley Press Staff Writer
LANCASTER - A crowd of roughly 160 people filled Lancaster's City Council chambers to hear a presentation about a proposed change in the process of disinfecting drinking water, with some questioning that switch and voicing concern about possible health risks and higher water prices.

At one point, the crowd's hostility escalated significantly, prompting Adam Ariki, assistant deputy director of Los Angeles County Public Works, to tell a few speakers he hadn't been rude to them, so he expected them to stop interrupting him, in order to regain control of the meeting.

Wednesday night's meeting was one of four scheduled between this week and next by Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich to inform people about the proposed switch from chlorine to chloramines as a water treatment. Chloramine, a chemical compound, is derived by adding ammonia to chlorine.

Because of the controversy that chloramines roused, county officials said they likely will send out a survey to L.A. County Waterworks customers for their input on whether they approve or disapprove of using that compound to treat their drinking water. The district serves about 54,000 customer connections in the Antelope Valley, or about 165,000 people.

Ariki said the Board of Supervisors will vote on sending out a survey at the recommendation of Antonovich.

"We believe we use the best approach, the most cost-effective approach," Ariki told the crowd, explaining that Waterworks customers in Malibu have received water treated with chloramines for more than 25 years.

The change to chloramines locally is being considered to reduce levels of a contaminant called trihalomethanes.

Trihalomethanes, known as THM, form when chlorine comes in contact with organic materials, such as decaying plant life, in surface water like that in the California Aqueduct.

Based on reports from the Environmental Protection Agency, THMs have been correlated with an increased risk of contracting certain types of cancer.

Previously, the standard for allowable levels of THMs was set at 100 parts per billion. A year ago, Ariki said, that standard lowered to 80 parts per billion.

Furthermore, he said, the old way of measuring was averaging the contaminant levels of an agency's water sources so, if one source measured on the high side, it could be offset by another source that measured low. The new EPA mandate requires contaminant levels at each of the monitoring locations in a water system to meet the standard.

The agency has two choices to meet the standard. One involves chloramines, which block the formation of THMs. The ammonia prevents the chlorine reaction with the organic materials. Or the agency can implement the use of granular activated carbon, which filters out organic matter from the water, another method of preventing the formation of THMs.

The ratio for chloramines is five parts chlorine to one part ammonia, Ariki said. The cost for agency customers would add about $8 to the average water bill every two months in Lancaster, Ariki said. In comparison, he noted, granular activated carbon would add $47 to the average water bill every two months.

Chloramines must be monitored closely, Ariki acknowledged. Otherwise, bacteria can grow in the pipeline, feeding off the ammonia, a condition known as nitrification.

Lancaster resident Suzanne Job asked why the switch in the water treatment process was necessary.

"Can't we leave it the same?" Job asked.

"No we can't," Ariki said.

"Why can't we?" Job asked.

Because of the change in EPA standards, Ariki said.

Ariki touched on the impact of drought on the water supply along with other factors such as a judge's decision to slow pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which feeds the California Aqueduct. In the Antelope Valley, the county Waterworks district receives water through the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, which would be the agency operating the treatment plants using chloramines.

"Why do we disinfect water?" Ariki asked. "Because we don't want bacteria in the water. Folks in other countries are dying of water-borne illnesses mainly (from) bacteria.

"Unfortunately in life, when we do something, we create problems. Chlorine, a chemical, reacts with organic materials in the water.

"Bacteria in the pipeline can kill us instantly," Ariki said.

Several people raised concerns that the chloramine-treated water would endanger the wildlife in Piute Ponds, fed by treated effluent from Lancaster sewage treatment plant, and at Lake Palmdale because chloramines are toxic to fish.

People with aquariums must use a special agent to remove the chloramines, or their fish will die.

Kidney dialysis centers or home dialysis equipment must also filter out the chloramines.

Neal Weisenberger, a former AVEK director, said he would try to clear up some confusion.

"Chlorine kills fish," Weisenberger said. Chlorine is already in the treated water, so people with aquariums must use an agent to cancel out the chlorine from the water they use to fill their fish tanks.

That same agent works to cancel out chloramines, according to Weisenberger.

"You're going to do exactly the same thing - the same treatment," he said.

As far as large areas, large bodies of water, Weisenberger said, "if you're adding less than 10% (of chloraminated water) you don't have to treat it. There's fish in L.A. They've been using (chloramines) for a long time. There's fish in San Francisco. They've been using it."

"I say chlorine and chloramines, both are poison," said Jim Barletta, president of the Averydale Mutual Water Company at 30th Street East and Avenue I. Barletta said he has 293 customer connections right now and strictly uses groundwater - none from the California Aqueduct.

Barletta was one of several people in the crowd who does not receive water from Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency or Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts, and therefore would not receive any chloramines.

Dennis LaMoreaux, former general manager of the Palmdale Water District, read a letter on behalf of Claud Seal, former interim general manager, assistant general manager and engineer of the Rosamond Community Services District.

"I have spent a great deal of time studying the issues and problems arising out of the use of chloramines. While conversion to chloramines by AVEK and Los Angeles County Waterworks may save construction moneys and installation of chemical treatment facilities, it will cost more to maintain the distribution systems when they are purged with free chlorine treated water.

"As a resident of Lancaster, I do not want to see ammonia used in our drinking water," Seal wrote.

Norm Hickling, Antonovich's aide, thanked the crowd for showing up, but told them it felt "kind of like walking into a scary movie" with all the tension in the room.

Hickling said he was concerned whether "this group is truly representative of the entire community" and he vowed that the county would take a survey.

"The key to this effort is what the community wants for quality water," he said.

Hickling said that Antonovich is "very much" focused on people's health and the need for clean water.

Ariki said, "I have no interest in convincing you one way or another. I have no vested interest. I'm here to provide you with the facts as a professional engineer.

"I'm not the ultimate decision-maker. I work for the board (of supervisors)," Ariki said, adding, "there is no conspiracy here. We're not conspiring to fool anyone."