Celebrated environmental activist Erin Brockovitch gives the city some love for doing water treatment well.
By Lynn Freehill-Maye
Raise a tall glass (of water) to Poughkeepsie! Erin Brockovitch’s new book, “Superman’s Not Coming,” calls for everyday citizens to speak up on community and environmental issues, including clean water. The famous activist highlights Poughkeepsie as an example of doing it right.
Brockovitch praises Randy Alstadt, water plant administrator at the Poughkeepsie Water Treatment Facility. Alstadt, she says, saw a water treatment “fix” that was actually making things worse — and voluntarily corrected the process because it would be safer and healthier for residents.
Here’s how Brockovitch and coauthor Suzanne Boothby describe Alstadt’s experience in Poughkeepsie:
The plant started using chloramines, a mixture of ammonia and chlorine, in 2000 to help control the amount of disinfection byproducts in the water to meet EPA regulations. It was a cheap fix that only required a chemical feed pump, a chemical storage tank, and the cost of the ammonia.
As soon as the water plant turned on the chloramine, they started to see increased corrosion in the distribution system, along with gaskets failing — both at the plant and in customers’ homes. Randy’s customers reported brown water coming out of their taps. Health problems, such as skin and respiratory issues, showed up too.
“Right when we made the switch, we had people calling and complaining about skin rashes and breathing problems, and they said their houseplants were dying,” he told me.
He was not aware of the health effects at that time, and to be fair, we did not have as much information then as we have today. These issues are consistent with what I’ve seen in so many of the communities that use chloramine today. The difference is that not all water companies seem to be as self-aware and honest as Randy. The water board approached him repeatedly, frustrated with the continuing rust and corrosion in the system as well as the customer complaints, so he hired an outside engineer to study the system and find a better solution. In 2010, he stopped using ammonia altogether.
“As soon as we turned off the chloramine, the brown water went away,” he told me. So did the health complaints. The problem with chloramine, Randy said, is that it masks the problem of organics in the water. It doesn’t get rid of them and it forms even more byproducts, which are currently unregulated. We certainly don’t need more unknowns when it comes to treating our water.
Since then, the Poughkeepsie plant has approved funding and finished building a new system using ozone and biologically activated filters to help remove organic material from the water. The new system not only eliminates the need for chloramines but also reduces the amount of chlorine needed to clean the water.
Watch Randy explain how Poughkeepsie cleans its water here.