Ben Kearns, second from left, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority water operations supervisor, explains water-filtration testing equipment during an August 2017 legislative tour of the authority’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press
By KIRK ROSS Carolina Public Press State House and Senate leaders announced a long-sought agreement last week on a statewide response to “emerging contaminants,” a class of new, unregulated compounds that have been found in North Carolina rivers and whose effects on human health are unclear.
Close to 90,000 of these potentially hazardous substances are known to exist. For water-quality regulators at the state, federal and local levels, trying to keep up with the fast-changing inventory of compounds is an exercise in triage.
Nothing made that difficulty clearer than discovery of one unregulated compound known by the trade name GenX in the water supply for about 300,000 North Carolinians in the lower Cape Fear region.
The GenX story is complex, interwoven with chemistry, law and the shifting framework of federal and state regulation. More than that, it is about the future of water quality and whether those charged with protecting it have the tools and expertise to keep up with changes in the industries they regulate.
Given the experiences the Department of Environmental Quality has faced in the past year, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan thinks it is ready to take on the task.
“I think we’ve positioned ourselves very well to act on what we are facing,” he said recently after guiding legislators through a tour of DEQ’s main labs in Raleigh. “We just need a partnership with our legislature and we need the resources.”
Last year, as the GenX story expanded, Regan sought emergency funds from the legislature. This year, he is pushing for a more proactive and comprehensive approach.
New Bern residents may have noticed a change in their city tap water which, as one resident pointed out vividly but probably hyperbolically, suddenly tastes like shit.
Beginning on April 16 and continuing until June 18, the city changed the disinfectant used in the water treatment process from chloramines to free chlorine.
The city started using chloramines as a secondary disinfectant starting in 2010. This involves adding a small amount of ammonia after water is chlorinated. Compared to free chlorine, chloramines form fewer chemical byproducts, improve taste and odor, and last longer in the water system to prevent bacterial growth.
“It is customary for water systems using chloramines to revert back to free chlorine for six to eight weeks annually,” the city said in a news release. “Free chlorine serves to remove any microbial growth that may have formed while using chloramines, which is a less potent but more stable disinfectant. This is a standard water treatment practice to keep our distribution system clean and free of potentially harmful bacteria throughout the year. During this period, customers may notice more chlorine taste and odor. This will go away immediately once the water system is returned to chloramines.”
Some residents in the Ghent neighborhood are experiencing a doubly refreshing experience with treated water.
“This is likely due to the crews disinfecting the new portions of the water main that have been installed in the area and the extra flushing that is also needed with the new installs. This should be short lived and should be back to normal quickly,” said City Engineer Jordan B. Hughes.
So in the meantime, for the next few weeks, what are your options if you can’t stand the taste of your water? Here are your options:
Pour tap water into an open container and let it sit overnight to let the chlorine dissipate.
Suck it up — unless you’re a dialysis patient or keep fish. In these cases, your water will need to be treated further. See your physician or pet store for further information.
Meanwhile, the water system will perform high velocity flushing of water mains during and shortly after the reversion period, and you may notice some discoloration in your water after the service is performed in your area. If this happens, run a tap in in your house for five minutes to clear your service line. If the discoloration persists, contact the Water Treatment Division at 639-7568.