Chromium Research and the Importance of Making Informed Decisions in the Water Industry

Blogger: Gwen Woods-Chabane, Drinking Water Quality Lead | Claremont, CA | US
November 16, 2016

Nearly a year ago I was brought onto an ongoing Water Research Foundation (WRF # 4562) project called “Scoping Study to Review the Contributions of Corrosion to Chromium in Drinking Water," focused on assessing the potential for significant release of chromium from distribution system supplies. This desktop, theoretical evaluation was not meant to provide absolute guidance on whether chromium, and in particular hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)], can be released in significant quantities to finished drinking water, but was rather an evaluation to identify further research needs.

When I joined the study, the majority of the groundwork on the project had already been laid and pieced together by Dr. Julie Bell, former HDR Senior Professional Associate and Claremont Laboratory Supervisor, but there was still an ongoing evolution of ideas. Questions were posed, including: Are we missing something? What other factors might be taken into consideration? Were the final recommendations  sound advice? These questions and subsequent discussions conveyed the delicate balancing act that the project team faced. On one side was the fear of overlooking something that might negatively impact public health, while on the other, was the need to provide information in a way that would not instigate widespread and unnecessary replacements in distribution systems. The project team was aware that we needed to provide well-informed and well-thought-out recommendations that would help the industry move forward in a positive direction.

With the first draft of our project nearly complete, on January 16, 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency in the city of Flint, Michigan and the surrounding county, where drinking water was found to contain dangerous levels of lead contamination. The topics of “corrosion” and “distribution systems” were major national headlines. It was more important than ever that the research team clearly provide the best-of-available information, and to feel certain in our recommendations.

Eight months later, as the project was finalized and awaiting publication, further national intrigue was introduced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). On September 20, 2016, the EWG released a report entitled “Erin Brockovich: Carcinogen in Tap Water of More than 200 Million Americans.”  The report ultimately criticized EPA for delaying on a regulation for hexavalent chromium, resulting in a fresh wave of concerns in the water industry in cities across the US.

Opening my inbox on November 4, I saw that the environmental group, the Waterkeeper Alliance had announced their intent to sue EPA for lack of stricter regulations and delayed decision-making processes for chromium, as well as five other contaminants of concern.

As we read about such hype and the subsequent excitement that is generated in the water industry, it is important to maintain a sense of clarity. When public perception or new regulations influence how funding is spent, the new treatment technologies, infrastructure and/or operational changes implemented do not guarantee that the overall quality of water has been improved in a given system. First, and foremost, there is the responsibility to protect public health: but there are further issues as to proper allocation of resources and whether intelligent, well-informed decisions are being made: How do we gain clarity? Make intelligent decisions? Stay ahead of the game?  

By staying active in research and providing centralized platforms for knowledge sharing (such as HDR’s Water Institute), we can work collectively to see through the complexity, to understand the urgency of the issues, and to help our clients make intelligent decisions. Interests will undoubtedly vary from region to region, from one client to the next, and it is arguably as important to listen to clients’ needs and concerns as it is to help provide the very best-of-available guidance.

In coming months, it will be interesting to see how the current pressures on EPA play out, what decisions will be made for contaminants currently under consideration for regulation, and how long it will take for the industry to regain public confidence after such a challenging year. In consideration of the varied and growing pressures on safe drinking water, it is more important than ever that well-informed decisions are made at every level throughout the industry.