Brooklyn Center water complaints persist into the new year

A year after the construction of a new city water treatment plant, a growing number of Brooklyn Center residents are expressing concern and displeasure with the aesthetic quality of their drinking water.

Ever since the city of Brooklyn Center activated a treatment facility to curb the presence of manganese and iron in the municipal water supply, city officials have received increasingly frustrated complaints from numerous citizens claiming their household’s water suffers from a noxious odor, an unpalatable taste, flecks of dirt and sediment, or even a detrimental effect on their health.

“(As for) the chlorinated smell, I didn’t really start noticing it until maybe this past year or a few months ago, even,” said resident Danielle Copeland-Bethke. “If I go into my sink to splash water on my face, I just thinking I’m using chlorine. We all have dry skin … we all are putting lotion on ourselves all the time.”

Copeland-Bethke, who lives with her husband, children and two dogs, says that the aesthetics of their water have forced them to spend upwards of $12 a week on bottled water.

“We were giving the dogs the water, and then we realized if we’re not drinking, we probably shouldn’t [give] it to our dogs,” she said. “Between the six of us and the two dogs, we buy a lot of bottled water. We could probably go through a case of water in two days.”

Copeland-Bethke’s complaints are similar to those of many other Brooklyn Center residents, with the uproar over water aesthetics beginning last spring. When the city installed its water treatment plant, the Public Works Department switched from its previous system of chloramination – which feeds an ammonia-chlorine compound into the water supply as a disinfectant – to a new process called breakpoint chlorination, which does away with ammonia to avoid lead and copper distribution in the water filtration system.

Brooklyn Center has cited breakpoint chlorination as a safer and more effective disinfection method, and the Public Works Department has noted the chlorine levels in the city’s water supply satisfies recommended Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

What the city didn’t expect, however, was the change in aesthetics for many residents’ water. City Engineer Steve Lillehaug said that to date, Brooklyn Center has received around 200 complaints regarding the taste, smell and dirtiness of residents’ water.

‘I feel like they’re just trying to put us off’
Ever since the city’s annual hydrant flushing last April, a variety of Brooklyn Center residents have voiced their displeasure with the aesthetics of their drinking water, both on social media and in city council open forums. Brian and Anne Fellegy have been particularly open about their resentment towards what they perceive to be an indifferent attitude from the city council and Mayor Tim Willson regarding their concerns.

Brian spoke about his family’s issues during an informal open forum prior to the Sept. 12, 2016, city council meeting, but the couple felt their concerns fell on deaf ears.

“The formats of those meetings are not such that we can exchange in conversation,” said Anne Fellegy. “They know what the issues are. We want them to respond to them. We’re tired of the stalling tactics.”

The Fellegys have mentioned that their bathroom reeks like a public pool when they turn on the shower, that their water tastes like bleach, and that their skin is incredibly dry. Brian Fellegy argued that the city’s previous disinfectant methods worked just fine.

“It’s a complex topic, but what they used previously worked great,” he said. “What they use now has completely destroyed the aesthetics of the water. It’s my belief that they did it to save money. It seems really silly to build a $20 million state-of-the-art treatment plant, and then poison it aesthetically by chintzing on the disinfection treatment.”

The Fellegys mentioned that they refuse to purchase home filters out of principle, saying that they shouldn’t be expected to pay extra money to ensure pleasant-tasting water. They said they still spend upwards of $40 on bottled water. Resident Tamie Blesi likewise has complained about her water’s aesthetics and its effects on her family’s health.

“We’ve had cases and cases of bottled water we’ve been living off of for the past year, at least,” said Blesi. “My health has been slowly deteriorating. Doctors are scratching their heads. My kids have rashes, and my husband … said his skin itches so bad when he gets out of the shower, and I’m sure it’s from the water.”

‘The consensus is we’ve done everything right’
Despite the growing number of angry city residents, city officials are confident the move to breakpoint chlorination was the best possible move to make to ensure the water supply’s potability.

“People were used to (the old) water for 40, 50 years, and now it’s significantly different, and they’re just not used to it,” said Lillehaug. “I can get a lot of other people to say that it’s not that bad, and that it’s pretty common. It varies from person to person on the effects … and all of our parameters are well within every single tolerance window at the Department of Health.”

Nonetheless, the Public Works Department says that it’s working on finding solutions. Lillehaug said the city’s been looking at outside consultants to help address the problem.

“There’s always a second, third, fourth opinion that might trigger something that might open up a new avenue,” said Lillehaug. “We’ve had a lot of different people look at it. With the several different consultants that we are working with, and the Department of Health staff is large and wide, and we’ve had many different experts come from out-state departments of health, in-state … and we’ve spoken with them. We’ve spoken with our city staff … and we’ve bounced a lot of ideas off. And really, the consensus is we’ve done everything right.”

At the Sept. 12 council meeting, Lillehaug cited an ongoing EPA study that was mentioned by the Wall Street Journal in August, where federal officials are attempting to determine the efficacy of chloramination in water systems. Lillehaug said that the city was awaiting the results of that study before making any significant decisions regarding the disinfection process.

“We haven’t seen any progress (on the study),” said Lillehaug. “The Department of Health, who also is checking with the EPA on it, they haven’t seen any progress on this. So, I’m expecting that the EPA is taking a step back, and it might not be done for another year or two.

“The problem is most of the public drinking water entities use chloramination, and they’ve been using it for many years,” Lillehaug continued. “So, the sky’s not falling necessarily on that. I’m assuming it’s going to be … data-driven on their end, so I have an inquiry to ask them directly of when they expect to have a response.”

As far as complaints about residents’ physical maladies go, Lillehaug says that he hasn’t received any data seeing a correlation between the use of free chlorine and skin rashes and stomach issues.

“Those ailments I wouldn’t say are necessarily cause-and-effect from the drinking water,” said Lillehaug. “There’s a lot of other factors in life that could cause those. We’ve cleaned up the water, those concentrations of anything in our water don’t cause those ailments.”

Mary Ostrowski, senior director on chlorine issues at the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemistry Council, said that as long as chlorine or chloramine levels are kept to levels deemed safe by the EPA, then that water is safe to consume.

“In the case of chlorine, the upper limit is four milligrams per liter of free chlorine,” said Ostrowski. “It is the same for chloramine. Now saying that is one thing. Making the water safe is important, but there’s also the factor of making it aesthetically pleasant.”

Ostrowski argued that Brooklyn Center’s situation would possibly benefit from the water treatment plant tweaking its processes to make tap water more pleasant to consumers.

“It’s a matter of tweaking the treatment process, such as the order of disinfection and filtration, and sometimes even dechlorinating before sending the water through the pipes,” said Ostrowski. “It’s important to keep a residual level of chlorine or chloramine in the pipes, however, as it travels from the treatment facility to the individual homes. That’s because there are opportunities for microbial regrowth within the distribution system.”

When asked if free chlorine could cause side effects like skin irritation, Ostrowski was skeptical.

“Not if levels are kept at 4 mg/l or below,” she said. “According to the EPA, as long as they meet that regulatory residual level of disinfectant, there should be no health effects.”

Frustrations boiling over
Even though the city’s water may be safer per the state’s requirements, some residents still aren’t satisfied with what they consider to be burdensome aesthetics.

“When you take a bath, wash your face, flush the toilet or wash dishes, the strong smell is always there,” said resident Steve Andrusko. “Just as the city needed to prove that the manganese was a health issue to its citizens, it now needs to prove that their new water treatment process is not a health issue to its citizens, or the treatment plant was not justified or needed.”

“These things are major inconveniences for us to have to always be cautious about what we’re going to do about the water we get out of the tap,” said Brian Fellegy. “Imagine people with pets. A lot of people are not giving it to their pets. Young children, babies. And people with real sensitive skin. People have varying sensitivities to this. There are some people that I would imagine this is a real problem for.”

“I live a couple of doors down from Brian Fellegy, so my water experiences are the same as his,” said resident Brenda Trafton. “My only addition would be when I put ‘fresh’ water in my dog’s bowl, he comes over and smells it and walks away. Only after it sits out for about an hour will he drink it.”

Brooklyn Center resident Laurie Hengel recently provided the Sun Post with a compilation of complaints by about 120 residents via social media regarding their water. The following is a selection of those complaints:

• Veronica Button said that she feels like she gives her daughter a bath in a swimming pool, and that the water is “hard on skin (and) hair.”
• Sara Turner claims the water makes her sick when she brushes her teeth.
• Jessica McLain says aside from her water’s chlorine smell, her skin and scalp becomes itchy after showers and baths.
• Sai Vang says her plants continue to yellow and die thanks to the water. She also complained of having dry scalp and skin.
• Kari Tollefson said her water tastes bad, smells worse, and that boiling the water didn’t solve matters, forcing her to purchase bottled water.
• Marcus Belcher said he had his water checked, and was told not to drink the water, as its quality was so poor that it “scored 448 on EPA standards.”
• Alisha Franczak claims there is an overwhelming smell in the bathroom; her hair is breaking off, and that her water has black particles in it. She also claimed that her dog now has incontinence issues.
• Timothy Moriarty said the filter on his furnace humidification system was destroyed by the water.
• Tammy Sathre said there is an increase in black flecks in her water, even in the toilet.

Residents such as Brian Fellegy have gone on record to say that they would be willing to incur extra costs on their utility bills if Brooklyn Center reverted back to the chloramination process.

“I can’t get a straight answer out of (the city) as to whether the switch to breakpoint chlorination reduced the operational expense by $30,000 a year,” said Fellegy. “If it did, then going back would just be going back to where we were. It should not create any increase in our water bills. We didn’t see a reduction when they went with the cheaper method. Why would we see a rise if we went back to the previous way?”

Lillehaug noted that in the scenario where Brooklyn Center switched back to chloramination, up-front capital costs would be an estimated $50,000, and $30,000 annually in operating costs. He did say that any increase of residential utility bills would be insignificant.

“You’re talking $50,000 up-front and $30,000 annually, so it’s a very small amount over all the users,” said Lillehaug. “We just built a $20 million water treatment plant, and the user rates went up, but not drastically. So, this $50,000 plus $30,000 annually is almost an insignificant amount spread over all the users. But it certainly is a consideration.”

Lillehaug stressed that the city is doing everything it can to address residents’ needs, and that a telephone survey performed by a third-party firm began on Jan. 12, with an approximate 400 random participants in the survey. Lillehaug said that the survey was anticipated to finish in the first week of February.

“Analysis of the survey will be completed by the third week of February and presentation made to the council by the end of February or early March,” said Lillehaug. “Before an alternate household is substituted for a designated target, at least 10 tries are made to contact the initial households during a five-day period. The sample of telephone numbers will include cellular telephone-only households, landline-only households and combination households.”

But for residents like the Fellegys, the fear remains that the voices of those affected by the aesthetics of their water will remain unheard.

“The people that provide that don’t seem to care about the aesthetics of the water,” said Brian Fellegy. “But the people that use it most certainly do. And we voiced our concern about it through all different kinds of forums, and nothing is being done about it, and it’s very frustrating.”

Are you a Brooklyn Center resident dealing with issues regarding your water’s aesthetics? Do you have concerns regarding its safety? Or are you satisfied with your current situation? Contact the Sun Post with your thoughts by emailing Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]