Following a somewhat heated public hearing on the issue Thursday, the Ketchikan City Council unanimously approved a budget amendment to provide an extra $100,000 for the city’s contract with engineering consultants CH2MHill.

Members of the public speaking against the budget amendment questioned the need to use CH2MHill for certain activities, such an answering concerns from the public about the city’s new chloramine water treatment system, which was turned on April 7th.

Jeannie Wills told the Council that city staff should be able to answer the questions themselves. Wills adds that she believes CH2MHill is biased in favor of the use of chloramine.

“I wonder if it would have been better to get a different third party and not the person that you paid all that money to build that plant,” she said. “It just seems like there is this huge conflict of interest there.”

Council Member Bob Sivertsen responded that a different firm would need to spend significant time studying the background, and learning all about the project before it would be able to answer any questions.

Speaking of background, here’s a little information for those who might not be familiar with the issue. For many years, the city’s water treatment system has been using free chlorine – essentially bleach – to kill organisms in the water that can make people sick. Unfortunately, when chlorine comes into contact with organic material, it produces byproducts. Some of those byproducts are regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, because studies have indicated that they can cause cancer.

Ketchikan’s water had too many of those regulated byproducts, and the EPA told the city it needed to do something to reduce the levels. There were options. One was a filtration plant, but the cost estimate was high – somewhere in the range of $30 million. The other was a combination of chloramine and ultraviolet light.

Chloramine is chlorine mixed with a small amount of ammonia. It also produces some of those regulated byproducts, but not usually as many. It also was a lot less expensive to build that system, so that’s what the city chose to do.

That was about 10 years ago. This winter, the city announced it was ready to turn the new system on, and that’s when a group formed to oppose the switch. United Citizens for Better Water members are worried mostly about the health effects of chloramine. They got a petition to put the issue on the ballot, collected signatures and turned it in. The city is in the middle of reviewing that petition, to make sure it passes legal muster.

That brings us to the present. Because of the public opposition, the city used CH2MHill’s services more than anticipated, and the money in the contract was used up. City officials said they’ll need the firm’s guidance through fall, at least, which is why they wanted the $100,000 budget adjustment.

Amanda Mitchell, who spearheads the United Citizens group, said she’s concerned about at least a couple of the items listed under CH2MHill’s proposed scope of work. One is assistance with the petition review.

“Why does CH2MHill think that they need to review our citizen initiative?” she said. “They’re not involved in our local ordinances, and we’re looking at paying them $10,000 to fight against us wanting to vote on this. That’s kind of disturbing.”

City Mayor Lew Williams III responded that the only person who will make the decision about the petition is the city attorney. But, the attorney might have technical questions, and needs to be able to get answers from an expert.

City Manager Karl Amylon added that the $10,000 is a placeholder, and the city may well not spend that much for the attorney’s technical advice.

“Money will not be borrowed unless expenses are incurred,” he said. “In terms of the technical support that CH2MHill will provide to the city attorney in this context, they’re the experts on the design of the plant. They didn’t build the plant, they designed it. If the city attorney needs their assistance to answer questions he has, that’s what this money is intended for. It may or may not be expended.”

Amylon added that it is common for municipal governments to hire professional firms to provide expertise in specific areas.

A couple more people spoke during public comment about chloramine, asking the Council to rethink its decision. One, Sally Balch, said she’s been testing her water and it appears that the pH level had risen since the city started chloramine. She said she would like clear, simple answers from city officials.

“If I really felt, heart to heart, that it was safe for us, I wouldn’t oppose it, because I trust you guys. I really do,” she said. “I voted for most of you guys to be here, because I believe in what you’re doing.”

But, she said, the Council should take a step back and rethink the decision about chloramine.

Later, during Council discussion of the budget amendment, Williams asked  City Attorney Mitch Seaver to explain how he would use CH2MHill for the petition review.

“I have most of the information I think I’m going to require from Mr. Kleinegger,” Seaver said. “There are some technical and complex issue that I want to be able to speak with CH2MHill. I don’t foresee it being anywhere near the amount in this estimate.”

The budget amendment passed unanimously.

During Council comments at the end of the meeting, Council Member Marty West noted that the city of Portland, Oregon, is known for its environmental conscientiousness.

“I was noticing a news item today that they are going to discharge 38 million gallons of water from their reservoir because they found that a guy peed in it,” she said. “So, they take their water purity and quality extremely seriously. And they also have chloraminated water.”

If the ballot initiative proposed by the anti-chloramine group is approved by the city, it would go before voters within two months. If city voters then chose to prohibit the use of chloramine, the city likely would have to move forward with filtration.

The city’s legal review of the ballot initiative petition must be completed by May 2nd.

The chloramine issue is moving beyond city limits. At the prompting of people opposed to chloramine, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly has scheduled a presentation about the water treatment process for its next meeting; and the Ketchikan School Board is supposed to talk about the issue, as well.