On Tuesday, August 23, the Emporia City Council held a special meeting to address area resident’s concerns about discolored water in their homes. Information provided to the Members of City Council for the meeting may be viewed here.
The meeting began with an explanation of how the water became discolored and what was being done to correct the issue.
Linwood Pope shared that the primary issue was the iron and manganese coming out of suspension, and that the treated water is crystal clear when it leaves the plant before adding that the issue was likely a result of the recent high temperatures and compounded by the many recent water main breaks. Mr. Pope explained that the city had spoken with the State Health Department, explained the situation and what steps had been taken to correct the problem before assuring City Council that the Health Department has concurred with the Utility Department’s conclusion. Mr. Pope further explained that in addition to the additional chlorine that was being used, flushing of the system should be the focus of the efforts to clarify the water.
This is not the first time that the City of Emporia has had this issue with the water, several years ago there was the same problem and it was caused by extreme heat.
Mr. Pope was joined by Tom Delbridge to explain the problem at the home of James Givens. The water in Mr. Givens’ home is extremely discolored. Mr. Delbridge explained that samples had been taken from the fire hydrant on the street, at the water meter and inside the house. The samples from the hydrant and water meter were clear, but the sample from inside the house was discolored.
A representative from the State Health Department, John Warwick, reinforced the comments offered by Pope and Delbridge, adding that running warm water through a cold pipe often causes certain minerals to come out of suspension.
While the water has been declared safe to drink, none of the members of the Utility Department present were willing to do so. As Mr. Warwick said later in the meeting, it is safe, but no one wants to drink water that is not clear. Mr. Warwick also said that the Health Department believes that the City “has done what needs to be done to solve the problem.”
Samples of the water from Mr. Givens’ home were sent to the State Lab for testing, but the results will not be back until September.
After hearing that the lab results would not be back until September 5, Council Member Jay Ewing asked what was to be done now. Mr. Pope and Mr. Delbridge restated that the flushing of the system via fire hydrants would continue and cooler weather would help. The Utility Department has ordered automatic flushing devices for fire hydrants that can be programmed to automatically flush the system.
Several citizens were on hand for public comments. James Givens spoke about the quality of the water in his home, adding that he must now buy bottled water in addition to paying a water bill. He took exception to some of the information laid out during the presentation, stating that utility crews flushed the hydrant at the end of Edgewood Street for over an hour and that the water still was brown. Mr. Givens further stated that the crews were at the water for 30 minutes before the water ran clear. At this time Mr. Givens also asked that those present drink the water, but no one would. Mr. Givens continued, “I heard the statement a few minutes ago that the water was safe to drink. Here is my water from this morning; I would like to see you take a sip.” Neither Mr. Pope nor Mr. Delbridge would do so.
Mr. Givens told Council that he has heard differing reports and that Mr. Warwick had previously stated that the issue was bacteria in the pipes and that the Utility Department was saying something different. Mr. Warwick denies making that statement. Mr. Givens added that there was a problem somewhere in the system, but that he knew that it was not the pipes under his house.
Mr. Givens also stated that there were bound to be problems in a system this old, and that he “didn’t know that in 1910 that they even made metal pipes,” adding that he thought it would have been concrete, “and if it is concrete, what about asbestos?”
Mr. Givens concluded, “I just want my water clear. As it stands, I am spending $125 a month on my water bill” and an additional $35-40 to buy water to cook with and to drink; spending that additional money on water, he said, was not fair to him or his fellow citizens. Citing his health issues “The only thing I use this water for is to bathe, and that’s it.”
Mr. Givens also asked City Manager Brian Thrower “at your office, Mr. Thrower, how often to you drink this water?” As he asked this, it was difficult not to notice that Mr. Thrower, the City Attorney and all Members of City Council had bottled water in front of them.
After his comments, Mr. Givens was questioned by Mayor Mary Person about the need to purchase water, to which he answered that it was not fair to be forced to pay for something (City water) that cannot be used.
Peggy Branch also addressed City Council, asking if the City water is safe, “why does it carry an odor? Like a bathroom, not a chlorine odor. It’s not just the color, it’s the odor.” Ms. Branch referenced another citizen present, and he added his comments about the odor.
Chris Thompson told City Council about how the water leaves an odor on his dishes after being washed, either by hand or in the dishwasher. He stated that the problem could not be galvanized pipe leading to his house as he had replaced the line from the meter to the house and had installed a new dishwasher. He added that it was embarrassing to have house guests and need to smell the plate to see if it could be eaten off of, describing the smell as wet dog fir.
Mr. Thompson added that these issues have been ongoing since before the new water treatment plant was built, and that once the new plant was done, the problems would go away. “My water bill is five times what it was” when he moved here. He stated that when he tried to get an abatement on his water bill that a City employee, and he named City Manager Brian Thrower as the employee, tell him that all he wanted “like everyone else is free water.” Mr. Thompson added that what he really wanted was clean, healthy water. He wondered why we did not call Virginia Tech, stating that they went to Flint, Michigan and adding that Mr. Warwick said that was not a scientist and we should get scientists to find and resolve the problem with our water.
Ms. Branch also shared the concern about the high water bills and asked if there would be some king of credit, adding that “we’re hearing about the flushing and flushing,” it’s costing us more to do that. She added that “we don’t want free water, we want what is right. We want the situation fixed, if it can be fixed.”
Theresa Johnson, of Chesterfield County, stated to Council that she was present to support family in the area, and that while she and her husband had considered retiring to Emporia, the water quality was an issue. She also wondered if the water was safe for her elderly, bedridden mother-in law. Mrs. Johnson told council that her daughter lived here and had complained about the smell of the water and asked if it was in the budget for the City to supply bottled water until the issue is fixed.
Both Jim Saunders and Kristin Vaughan shared that the water at the newly constructed YMCA was also discolored, and that it could not be the pipes in the building that were the problem as it is fairly new. The water at the drinking fountains and in the water closets at the YMCA is discolored. Mr. Saunders added that they were buying bottled water for the kids. Water is provided for two snacks daily, 160 bottles of water a day were being used. Mr. Saunders estimated that they may have purchased thousands of bottles of water, but they are not doing that now and that they were installing water filtration at the facility at a cost upwards of $1000.
Mr. Saunders applauded City Council for their efforts in replacing the water treatment plant, stating that the cost was $14 Million. He added that some water mains from the plant were replaces when it was built. “From where we were a few years ago, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Mr. Saunders told Council.
“It’s not just affecting folks at home, but it is also affecting businesses,” Mr. Saunders continued, adding that the budget and financial questions for local businesses were something that Council would need to take into account when they reached a decision.
Mr. Saunders also reminded City Council that he had recently addressed them about the aging infrastructure within the City. While the water treatment plant is new, the main lines coming out of the plant were laid in 1910 and 1925. He also added that this was not just a City of Emporia issue, or a State of Virginia problem, but that our “nation has an infrastructure problem, and it’s not sexy because it is underground. We are not the only city with 100 year old pipes.” He further stated that once this issue was fixed that we needed to develop a plan for addressing the infrastructure problems in the City. “It’s only good for us; it’s only good for our residents; it’s only good for our businesses. More importantly, in my mind, it is important for our children and future generations.”
Mrs. Vaughan stated that while she agreed with everything Mr. Saunders had said about the YMCA, she was speaking as a private citizen. She also cited her concerns over the many recent water main breaks in her neighborhood. While she also agreed that the Utility Department was doing everything they could to correct the issues, she thought that the efforts were “temporary fixes. You can’t just spike our chlorine every time our water turns brown; I don’t think that is a long term solution.” Sharing her concern about the pipes, she said that she didn’t know of anything from 1910 or 1925 that was still functional. Speaking about the water treatment plant an analogy, she said “you can get a heart transplant, but if your arteries are clogged,” your blood is not going to flow through them and you’re going to have issues. “To me, the pipes are the issue” she stated, while she urged Council to find a long term solution.
Mr. Thompson addressed Council again, applauding the Utility Department for their efforts thus far, adding “but we need to make absolutely sure that we are not poisoning our children. We need to know it.” Citing previous comments about chemical reactions and people from the Health Department were not scientists, he added that he was more afraid of things that he couldn’t see and shared his concern about the long term effects of the current water quality. He reiterated his question about bringing in Virginia Tech and that it would be nice to have some independent testing so that citizens could be reassured that the water was safe.
Mr. Thompson also shared his concern that with a water bill that is $140 a month that plates need to be smelled before they are used to eat off of. He added that during this last episode his children did not even want to bathe in the water as it looked like mud and he could not even see the bottom of the bath tub. He stated that the water sample brought in by Mr. Givens looked “great compared to what my water looks like.”
Addressing City Council about reported plans to build a new Municipal Building, he said that “you’ve got to take care of your water first,” and that before spending taxpayer money, infrastructure should come first.
After the public comments, Council discussed the issue, but the only action taken was to add this water issue to the agenda for the next meeting.
During the entire meeting, City Manager Brian Thrower remained mostly quiet. Several citizens observed his demeanor and commented that he seemed smug, disinterested and even scornful. During her public comment one citizen said, “Mr. Thrower, I know you’re tired and you’re bored, but this is important.”