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UPDATE: Chilliwack gets to have its say on chlorination tonight

It wasn’t by accident that city officials rented the biggest venue in town — the Chilliwack Alliance Church — for the public meeting Feb. 26 to discuss the touchy subject of drinking water chlorination.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz said they wanted to give as many Chilliwack residents as possible a chance to voice opinions about chlorination of Chilliwack’s pristine drinking water at the event to be hosted by Fraser Health.

Glen MacPherson, head of public works, gave council a detailed report Tuesday on Chilliwack’s official reaction to Fraser Health’s chlorination edict, mapping out where they’re at now, and the next steps.

The formal response to Fraser Health had three main points, he said.

They are asking for data, or the actual evidence, upon which the chlorination decision was made; for consideration of alternative options; and, for a public consultation opportunity for Chilliwack residents.

This came on the heels of the order by Fraser Health from Feb. 1 for Chilliwack to begin adding a secondary disinfectant, chlorine, to the award-winning drinking water, and to continually monitor the levels of the disinfectant.

It’s caused a maelstrom of reaction at city hall. Hundreds of emails from angry residents as well as media calls have poured in to the mayor’s office. Some broadcast reporters from outside Chilliwack are getting the facts wrong, adding to the confusion and anger.

So is there E.coli in Chilliwack water? The head of public works posed the question himself, and then answered it: “There is a big resounding ‘no’ there.”

MacPherson emphasized the three incidents of “minimal” E.coli detection, in 2009, 2011 and 2012, were isolated and confined to hillside reservoirs, which operate separately from the main water distribution system.

“Other than the three incidents, there is no E.coli in the water, and certainly it is not there today,” he said.

He underlined that Fraser Health has acknowledged that it views Chilliwack’s groundwater source, the Sardis/Vedder Aquifer as “excellent,” and sees no risk in it.

“What can I say, looking over 25 years of records, there was zero E.coli was found in the main distribution system,” MacPherson said.

All ground water is at risk, but Chilliwack has a “comprehensive” water protection plan in place. The aquifer is more at risk from a chemical spill, he said, than from bacterial contamination.

However, the integrity of the distribution system, with its 450 km of pipes and cross-connections, and its vulnerability, was Fraser Health’s main concern. This is despite the fact that Chilliwack spends $3 million a year in rigorous maintenance of its pipes and reservoirs, which is more per capita than other communities.

“We take extra precautions,” he said.

Chilliwack is the first municipality in Canada to have “mixers” bring in cold, fresh water to be added to hillside reservoir water in the summer when the heat is beating down on them, to bring down temperatures.

City staff sample the water twice as often as required by law, with 44 samples taken per week, or 2,500 a year. But the sampling program does not eliminate risk, he said. It’s the size and complexity of the water system, which serves 80,000, which warrants the chlorination, according to health officials.

There are no “non-chemical” options for disinfection, he said.

The public meeting is set for next Tuesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. at the Alliance Church.

“I think they (Fraser Health) need an opportunity to talk to our community about this,” Gaetz said, adding that several members of council will be at the FVRD meeting that night.

The strength of the grass roots opposition from the residents of Chilliwack was noted, such as the Chilliwack Water Facebook page and petition website started by Kim and Jake Reimer at chilliwackwater.com.

“There are 3237 signatures on the petition and I think that’s rather significant,” the mayor added.

Chilliwack MLA John Les waded into the subject of chlorination of the drinking water in a press release, calling the prospect “the epitome of lunacy” and offering his support to city council in their opposition to the order by Dr. Marcus Lem.

“For years we have built and protected a world-class source and system to supply healthy and safe water to Chilliwack residents.”

Les went on to suggest that “surely the staff at Fraser Health have more constructive things to do with their time,” than demanding “deleterious” substances be added to drinking water at great cost, and “in the absence” of supporting evidence.

“I encourage residents of Chilliwack to support City Council in their opposition to this imposition,” said Les in the release. “Hopefully a reasonable solution can be found that doesn’t involve polluting Chilliwack’s domestic water supply.”

The public works water presentation to council is at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QHoVFikMyLw

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