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Posted at 5:41 PM ET, 01/12/2010

New treatment for D.C. area water

By Washington Post editors

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said a recent decision to change water treatment operations in the D.C. area was not in response to any specific terrorist threat.

“There is no threat against the water supply,” said Tom Jacobus, general manager of Washington Aqueduct, which is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and produces drinking water for about one million people in D.C. and parts of northern Virginia.

Washington Aqueduct plans to begin treating its drinking water with sodium hypochlorite, a dilute chlorine-containing compound in liquid form, instead of with pure chlorine — which Jacobus said is deadly if inhaled.

Jacobus said he was confident he would know of any threat to the area’s drinking water, noting Washington Aqueduct has “a very strong working relationship” with the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies and also has connections with the U.S. Department of Defense.

David Ruderman, a spokesman for the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said terror-related security concerns were considered, but that those concerns were “not what drove the change-over.”

One of the reasons for changing the chemical used to treat water at the Dalecarlia and McMillan water treatment plants had to do with preventing accidents, Jacobus said. Both plants are located in D.C.

The hazardous pure chlorine used at the two facilities can leak from time to time, Jacobus said, though always into a controlled environment.

“But you also could have potentially larger equipment failure that could potentially have off-site consequences,” Jacobus said, explaining that the new compound is expected to address the impacts of a possible accident at either plant.

The Washington Aqueduct changes come several years after the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority made the same shift in its own wastewater treatment operation. Alan Heymann, a WASA spokesman, said WASA began converting its wastewater treatment methods about six months after the 9/11 attacks, and cited “security” as the primary issue behind the change.
Jacobus said switching to the compound will raise costs at Washington Aqueduct by about $1 million per year.

Water users in D.C. could see their own costs for water go up because of the change, but not by much, said George Hawkins, general manager of WASA.

“It is not going to be something that is going to cause a significant change to anybody’s water bill,” Hawkins said.

Washington Aqueduct is constructing facilities that will allow the Dalecarlia and McMillan plants to use sodium hypochlorite, with construction expected to cost about $14.8 million, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The transition to the new system was expected to begin in January 2010, and is expected to take about half a year to complete.

--McLean Bennett

By Washington Post editors  | January 12, 2010; 5:41 PM ET
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