Vermonters who oppose the use of chloramine, a chemical disinfectant added to public water supplies to reduce potentially cancer-causing agents, scored a rare victory last week in Grand Isle County. On Aug. 20, residents of the Grand Isle Consolidated Water District voted 94 to 24 in favor of an $809,000 bond to construct a costlier but ultimately more effective and less controversial water-filtration system.
In recent years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required public water systems throughout the country to comply with stricter standards on the presence of so-called disinfection byproducts, which can be harmful to human health. Disinfection byproducts have been linked to certain cancers as well as reproductive and developmental disorders. The EPA has recommended that public water systems switch to chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, as the "best available technology" for controlling those disinfection byproducts.
But some people don't see it that way, including Grand Isle voters who are concerned about the potential health effects of chloramine. In April 2006, the Champlain Water District serving Chittenden County became the first — and thus far only — water district in Vermont to switch to chloramine. At the time, officials at the state's largest water supplier insisted that the public would see no discernible change in the quality of their water.
But in the months, then years, that followed, hundreds of Chittenden County residents came forward with complaints of skin, respiratory and digestive ailments which they claimed disappeared once they were no longer exposed to chloriminated water. Some of those residents later formed the citizens group, People Concerned About Chloramine. The group was instrumental in the passage of a 2008 state law requiring water districts to hold public meetings prior to switching water disinfectants.
This year, after months of studying two different treatment choices, Grand Isle's six-member water board recommended a granular activated carbon filtration system, saying it was the "better and more prudent option." Nearly four out of five Grand Isle voters agreed.
"Although more costly to install, GAC will deliver quality drinking water to the users, and the board believes it is the more economical and financially responsible choice to comply with current and anticipated future EPA regulations," the board wrote in a statement on its website.
David Borthwick-Leslie, who chairs the Grand Isle Consolidated Water Board, told Seven Days that the new GAC system will cost residents about $14 more per month than what they currently pay — and about $4 more per month than the chloramine upgrade would have cost had it been selected. Nevertheless, he says, the additional cost is worth it, both in terms of cleaner water and peace of mind.
Borthwick-Leslie, who remained neutral on the controversial question (in part because he's a Canadian who is ineligible to vote in local elections), says there are "signs on the wall" that over the next three years the EPA will adopt even stricter water-quality standards on the presence of other contaminants. Those stricter standards could include limits on the presence of prescription drugs, volatile organic compounds, endocrine disruptors and other chemicals not currently removed by conventional filtration systems. Unlike chloramine, Borthwich-Leslie notes, the GAC system would remove all those contaminants and "deliver much cleaner water."
Mere mention — or omission — of the word "chloramine" is enough to spark controversy in Grand Isle. As Seven Days' Kathryn Flagg reported in March, some residents of the water district were angry that a February 2012 bond vote to upgrade their water system removed any reference to chloramine. A flurry of emails on the subject obtained in a public records request by Vermonters for a Clean Environment later revealed that health department officials advised against using the word because of anticipated negative reactions to it.
After significant community activism on the chloramine question late last year, four pro-chloramine members of the water board resigned in frustration, leaving just two original members: Borthwick-Leslie and George Wilcox. All four of the new replacements are anti-chloramine.
Borthwick-Leslie says he believes the decision to go with GAC makes sense on several levels. First, if the EPA tightens up its mandates, Grand Isle won't have to pay for an even newer filtration system. Second, GAC doesn't introduce any new public health concerns. As he puts it, "The EPA requirements are the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm."
The upgrade won't make all of Grand Isle's water woes go away. According to Borthwick-Leslie, the water district has been operating at a "chronic deficit really ever since we've been in business." He notes that in the next five years, water rates are slated to go up nearly 23 percent — and that's not including the cost of the new disinfectant system.