Vt. legislature approves water treatment bill (5/14/09)

Law requires study of purification methods

May 14, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Lawmakers have passed a bill requiring study of water treatment alternatives amid complaints that a method used locally has sickened some people.

H. 80 won approval by both the Vermont House and the Senate last week. It requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study options for treating public water supplies.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, originally imposed a two-year moratorium on the use of chloramine in water systems throughout Vermont.

But the provision was stripped amid opposition from the Champlain Water District, which provides water to 68,000 users in Chittenden County. Health complaints surfaced soon after the district started using chloramine three years ago.

The bill was later amended by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to require further study of treatment alternatives.

McCullough, who previously expressed disappointment with the amended bill, said on Monday that the final legislation was a reasonable compromise because more information on medical problems and water treatment options is needed.

“I’m very happy with this solution on several fronts,” he said.

McCullough explained that though the maladies reported by scores of local residents seem real, medical evidence linking the problems to chloramine was lacking. He also said a moratorium might have resulted in no solution after the two-year timeout.

The Champlain Water District began using chloramine as a secondary treatment in April 2006. The district has said the compound will allow it to meet stricter water purity standards the EPA will impose in coming years.

But after the change, some water users began reporting health issues, including skin rashes, stomach cramps and breathing problems. Estimates of how many people experienced problems linked to the water supply vary from dozens to hundreds.

A local organization named People Concerned About Chloramine was formed to advocate for victims. That organization and a second group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, lobbied for a ban on chloramine.

Ellen Powell, organizer of People Concerned about Chloramine, said she would have preferred a moratorium. But she hoped the study would at least provide evidence showing chloramine is not the best way to meet treatment standards.

“The lack of a moratorium is very disappointing to me,” Powell said. “On the other hand, an engineering study is good.”

Chloramine is one of the ways to reduce byproducts created by the use of chlorine, the primary disinfectant used by the Champlain Water District and others around the state and the country.

Chlorine’s disinfectant properties weaken as water flows further away from its source, reacting with organic matter to produce byproducts thought to pose health hazards. Chloramine, formed by mixing ammonia and a chlorine compound, eliminates those harmful byproducts.

But there are other methods to treat those byproducts, Powell said. The study, which will be federally funded, will consider each method’s effectiveness and cost.

The study can be used by all public water districts in Vermont to gauge the best way to meet the EPA standards, McCullough said. Those standards require a reduction in chlorine byproducts by 2012.

The study is scheduled to be completed by January 2010, in time for the start of the next legislative session.

“This gives us hard information,” he said. “When the study is done, I’m hopeful the district will say we can do this without chloramine.”