The journalists stated in their “exclusive investigation” published on November 9, 2015 that “aluminum chlorohydrate, or ACH” was added to the drinking water during 2013 and 2014. The chemical was used to replace ALUM that’s used to remove impurities in water (2).
According to the CDC, the US has some of the safest drinking water supplies on the planet. Water treatment plants ensure the water supply is safe to drink.
Coagulation and flocculation are usually the first steps in treating water supplies. This involves using chemicals that have a “positive charge” added to the water. The chemical’s positive charge “neutralizes the negative charge of dirt and other dissolved particles in the water.” This process binds the particles to the chemicals and “form larger particles, called floc” (3).
The Sacramento water chemical change was supposed to be a “short-term” test to evaluate whether ACH could save the city money. In fact, it was believed that the new chemical would save the city “quite a bit of money,” the Sacramento Utility Director, Bill Busath told the journalists.
Jensen and Rubin reported that “for an entire year, the city didn’t stop and didn’t warn people about a hazard.” In addition to the exposure to “likely carcinogens”, Sacramento residents may have been put at risk for other side effects caused by the disinfection byproducts (DBPs) of the chemical. Those risks, according to the journalists, have been linked to miscarriages and “low birth weight.”
Unsafe DBP Levels
In their report, Jensen and Rubin stated that city officials were warned that the DBP levels were possibly unsafe according to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). In fact, the city allowed the chemical to be used well beyond the initial testing period.
So what made the DBP levels from the ACH so “historically high?” In a report that Sacramento officials filed with the state, it’s revealed that the city was aware of the rising ACH levels. This rise was the result of the city adding chlorine to the process in an effort to boost the “chemical’s lack of effectiveness.”
It wasn’t until May 2014 that the city ceased the testing – a year of contaminating the drinking water supply of Sacramento. The City Chemist told the investigating journalists that the city stopped the testing when the DBP levels would no longer be in compliance.
During that entire year, the city conducted regular readings of the DBP levels as required by the EPA. Jensen and Rubin point out that those levels “reading after reading went above what the EPA considers safe for long-term exposure to DBPs.”
Why weren’t the people of Sacramento told about their drinking water? It wasn’t something that gradually became worse and worse over the course of a year of adding ACH to the water system. In fact, ABC10 reported that the problem with the DBP levels was revealed in readings on the third day of the test.
Instead of halting the testing immediately, those in charge requested funds from the city council for “$850,000, to buy a truckload of ACH every week for a year for more testing.”
Sacramento Citizens Exposed to Harmful Chemicals in Water
The law only required the city to report “unusually high DBP level if the annual average of those quarterly samples was higher than the safe drinking water standard set by the EPA.” The annual average cannot be above 80 parts-per-billion. If readings reach this level, the public has to be notified.
ABC10 uncovered readings that exceeded that standard during the trial. An example of this excess was a “two-month period between August and October 2013, 11 of 13 readings were above EPA limits.”
But it was more two months before the trial was abruptly halted; the levels were “were way up across the city.” The exposure to some areas of the city were as high as 130 parts-per-billion.
ABC10 also uncovered emails that “reveal the city intentionally switched water sources from the city to the county, days before an EPA water test.”
The investigative journalism also unearthed evidence concerning a January 2014 test. Jensen and Rubin write, “…the Sacramento River Plant where the chemical trials were being performed was turned off, and the city took water from another plant on the American River.”
They also discovered among the emails that during one of the quarterly tests, “the city intentionally switched water sources from the city to the county, days before an EPA test.” Had the city not requested “emergency water service” then the readings would have placed the DBP levels high above the EPA annual standards.
ABC10 reported that the data used to justify changing to ACH for water treatment were flawed. Instead of saving “to a million dollars using ACH” the actual figures revealed that the “original chemical [was] safer” and “cheaper”.