Senate mulls water treatment legislation (4/30/09)

Bill could put moratorium on chloramine use

April 30, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Legislation imposing a moratorium on a method used locally to treat public water was effectively gutted by a House committee. But supporters still hope the state Senate will restore the bill’s original language.

Sponsored by Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, H.80 originally imposed a two-year moratorium on the use of chloramine in public water systems. The House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee he serves on, however, stripped the provision before approving the bill and sending it to the Senate.

McCullough said the bill as revised fails to fulfill its purpose: Providing a timeout for the many residents served by the Champlain Water District who claim chloramine has caused health problems while giving regulators more time to study its use.

“It was the whole idea of the legislation,” McCullough said.

He called what remains of the bill “fairly innocuous” and said it would accomplish little that isn’t already being done.

Language added in place of the moratorium summarizes health complaints since Champlain Water District began using chloramine three years ago and notes doctors lack sufficient information to diagnose reported health problems. It instructs the Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Health Department to review the issue and consult with water users.

The Champlain Water District, which supplies water to 68,000 people in Williston and other Chittenden County towns, started using chloramine as a secondary disinfectant in April 2006. Soon afterwards, some users began reporting health problems, including asthma-type symptoms, stomach cramps and skin rashes.

An organization named People Concerned About Chloramine was formed. Ellen Powell, the group’s organizer, said she is among the dozens of people afflicted, suffering from eye irritation.

“I don’t want to vilify the Champlain Water District,” she said. “They were trying to do the right thing. It just didn’t work out.”

Estimates of how many people have suffered from water-related health problems vary.

Powell said counting all members of households reporting problems, more than 300 people are potential victims. The water district said it has received 108 calls, some simply inquiries and others health complaints. The revised legislation says more than 80 people have reported symptoms.

The Champlain Water District asserts it made the water supply safer by using chloramine in addition to the standard dose of chlorine.

Chlorine’s disinfectant properties weaken as water flows further away from the treatment plant. Chlorine also reacts with organic matter to produce byproducts that are suspected of causing cancer and reproductive problems.

Chloramine is formed by mixing ammonia with a chlorine compound. It eliminates chlorine’s harmful byproducts, according to the district, which notes chloramine has been used to treat water in other parts of the country for about 90 years.

Any moratorium on its use “would definitely make the water less safe,” said Jim Fay, CWD’s general manager.

He also noted that the Environmental Protection Agency recommends chloramine as the best available secondary treatment method and said its use brings the district into compliance with stricter treatment rules that the EPA will impose in coming years.

Powell said there are no definitive studies proving chloramine is safe.

“We don’t want to be guinea pigs, we don’t want to be the lab rats,” she said.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has been considering the bill over the past month. Sen. Ginny Lyons of Williston, a member of the committee, said there has been talk about restoring the moratorium.

But she has concerns about the cost of reverting to the former treatment method and the lack of solid data on the health effects of chloramine.

Lyons said she was undecided on how she will vote. On one hand, she sympathizes with those suffering from health problems. But she also worries about imposing a rule that would negate local voters’ approval of a $622,000 bond used to upgrade the water treatment system.

“I really haven’t made up my mind,” she said. “I’d like to do something short of imposing a moratorium to help people out.”

There’s also the issue of whether legislation would apply to water systems throughout Vermont. The Champlain Water District is the only supplier in Vermont that currently treats water with chloramine, although it is widely used in the United States and other countries.

Sen. Kevin Mullen, R-Rutland, is also a member of the committee considering the bill. He said if the three committee members from Chittenden County want the moratorium he’d support it — as long as it applies only to the Champlain Water District.

The committee was scheduled to debate and possibly vote on the bill this Wednesday. Results from the session were not available by press time.

McCullough acknowledged that it is difficult to prove chloramine is causing the reported health problems. He said the best evidence the problems are real is that when people stop using the water to drink, cook and bathe, their symptoms go away.

“Maybe it’s not scientific,” he said. “But Vermonters have the common sense to know that when you stop banging your head against the wall it stops hurting.”