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Chlorination here to stay in White Rock

 Epcor water and wastewater services director David Rector, Fraser Health chief medical officer Dr. Paul Van Binder, and White Rock Mayor Catherine Ferguson explain the continuation of chlorination of water at Wednesday
Epcor water and wastewater services director David Rector, Fraser Health chief medical officer Dr. Paul Van Binder, and White Rock Mayor Catherine Ferguson explain the continuation of chlorination of water at Wednesday's press conference at the Centre For Active Living to announce findings of a report on last year's boil-water advisory in the city.
— image credit: Brian Giebelhaus photo

Chlorination of White Rock’s drinking water is now a permanent measure.

That is the upshot of the report on last year’s boil-water notice in the city, released at a press conference Wednesday at the Centre for Active Living.

Mayor Catherine Ferguson said she had only been informed Tuesday that chlorination of White Rock water – in place as a temporary measure after last summer’s boil-water advisory – would continue, and that the city would abide by the findings of Fraser Health and private water utility Epcor.

“The city has no authority over this under the legislation,” she said, noting the responsibility for delivery of safe water is Epcor’s, while Fraser Health has overall responsibility for ensuring the safety of the water. “The safety and health of the residents is not up for negotiation.

“We must trust their (Epcor and Fraser Health’s) expertise and their knowledge.”

Fraser Health chief medical officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder joined Epcor director of water and wastewater services David Rector in explaining the need for the measure, which they said would not only prevent E. coli intrusions into the city’s water system, but would also address the presence of manganese and arsenic in the water. The latter – while within previously acceptable levels – are now viewed as a greater potential health risk, Van Buynder said, adding that chlorination works to oxidize such materials before they reach the delivery system.

The chlorination, in place for water leaving the Merklin reservoir since E. coli readings triggered last August’s boil-water advisory, will be part of what Rector described as “a more robust, multiple-barrier system” for protecting the water supply, which would mean any failure of a single element would be covered by several others.

Given approvals for the company’s total water-quality management plan – which will be sought in June from Fraser Health and other authorities – the measures could be fully implemented by six months later, Rector said.

Van Buynder said Fraser Health was pleased to see Epcor adopting such measures – while noting that if it hadn’t, the health authority would have insisted on it.

While agreeing with Rector that the E. coli bacteria counts during last year’s crisis were low, and had not apparently resulted in illness, Van Buynder expressed alarm that the estimated one to four grams of bird feces that had entered the Merklin high reservoir through a breached roof seal last summer could have resulted in such widespread contamination.

“I’m concerned with some of the evidence about the integrity of the system,” he said. “The system is not sufficient to protect the public of White Rock as it stands at the moment.”

Van Buynder acknowledged public concerns about chlorination, including the potential for chlorine water treatments to break down into harmful chemical byproducts. But, he added, major problems with such chemical breakdowns are typically seen in surface-water situations, unlike the groundwater supply feeding the White Rock system.

“We’re not going to see anything like significant levels of disinfection byproducts (from chlorination),” he said.

Van Buynder said Fraser Health would be “delighted” if Epcor was able to offer alternatives to chlorination, such as UV disinfection, but the system in White Rock – which Rector reckons has some 76 kilometres of pipes – is too complex for this to be implemented.

That means chlorination will likely be here to stay, he told the Peace Arch News following the press conference.

“Could you start from scratch and build a groundwater system that used UV or other methods of disinfection? Possibly, if you had a pristine source of water,” Van Buynder said.

But White Rock’s existing water supply system is far from pristine, he said, noting much of the infrastructure – like the Merklin reservoir – is at least 50 years old.

“I think a lot of it’s older than that,” he added.

Van Buynder also said there is another advantage to a chlorinated system – real-time monitoring of the levels of disinfection, which provides an immediate indication of any changes, such as an intrusion of contaminants that could result in a sudden drop in residual chlorine levels.

Rector agreed, following the conference, that real-time monitoring – currently in place at Merklin reservoir – provides a much better warning of potential problems than testing of ‘compliance’ with safety standards through routine sampling of water, which, as in last year’s crisis, involves a two-day wait for laboratory results.

“We deliver six million litres of water to customers per day, and through compliance testing we only sample 1,000 litres over a year,” he said. “What fraction of the water in the system is that?”

The report also examines how the boil-water advisory message could have been delivered to the public more efficiently.

There were complaints last year from residents and council members who were unaware the advisory had been issued, in spite of message boards and attempts to contact all customers by phone.

Rector said Epcor plans to upgrade its emergency-response plan, including gathering more phone numbers of customers – including cellphones and contacts for strata units –  so that they can be informed directly by the company in case of any system failure.

The company switchboard was also swamped during the crisis, he acknowledged.

“Our phone system was also found to be wanting during this event, and that has been upgraded,” he said.

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