Local water systems are asking the EPA—for the first time in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s history—for help obtaining chlorine-based water treatment chemicals amid a nationwide shortage.
Local water officials say they fear chlorine suppliers are prioritizing deliveries to swimming pools instead of local water utilities.
The EPA has never before processed requests for help under that section of the law, which was enacted in 1974, said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn.
Water systems in California, Utah, New Mexico and New York turned to the EPA under Section 1441, which authorizes the Commerce Department to order suppliers to provide chemicals to water systems in need.
“Recent disruptions in the supply of critical water treatment chemicals, such as chlorine products and ferric chloride, have led to reduced allocations and projected shortfalls and delays in the delivery of these chemicals to some water and wastewater utilities,” EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said.
Oceanside, Calif., was among the water systems requesting help after it stopped receiving regular deliveries of sodium hypochlorite—commonly known as bleach—in July, said Rosemarie Chora, division manager in the Oceanside water utilities department.
The city was down to about a five-day supply when it applied for assistance from the EPA, Chora said.
Deliveries to Oceanside’s plants resumed without EPA help, “but it was quite dicey,” Chora said.
“That is not a good place to be because, if you miss another load, we’re talking about drinking water supply for 170,000 people,” she said. “That’s a lot of people to not have drinking water.”
Of the 15 Section 1441 requests EPA received, the agency is seeking public comment on 10 of them in order to determine whether to issue a certification of need.
“If Certifications of Need are issued, the Department of Commerce will issue orders to the chemical suppliers requiring them to provide the designated product to the utility in amounts deemed necessary,” Carroll said via email.
‘On Our Own’
Chlorine has been in short supply for months, and prices have spiked in the wake of a fire at a Louisiana chemical plant a year ago and a pandemic-related boom in backyard swimming pool upgrades.
The Chlorine Institute, a trade group, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but earlier this year it pointed to a report that the Louisiana chlorine plant would be offline until 2022.
Supply disruptions at water treatment plants are regional at the moment—mainly in the Southwest—and not “a national issue at this point,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.
Many of the systems asking for help have gotten the water treatment chemicals they need without the EPA, but they wanted to avoid missed deliveries that could cause disruptions.
Oceanside usually keeps a 14-day supply of chemicals on hand, but the EPA often takes more than a month to respond to a Section 1441 request, Chora said. That potentially leaves water utilities “on our own” if they can’t find a chemical supplier able to divert deliveries from swimming pools in time, she said.
‘Send a Signal’
Poway, Calif., turned to the EPA after a delay in its chemical deliveries “to send a signal that water needed to be prioritized,” city spokeswoman Rene Carmichael said.
“Chlorine needs to go to people who make safe drinking water,” she said.
Other systems seeking EPA help received their deliveries after a struggle. The Western Municipal Water District in Riverside, Calif. got the supplies it needed, “but with difficulty,” spokeswoman Sarah Macdonald said.
A sodium hypochlorite supplier couldn’t fulfill its contract for the rest of 2021 with the Niagara Falls Water Board Wastewater Treatment Plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y. But a new supplier came through at a higher price, said Sean Costello, the water board’s general counsel.
The board filed the Section 1441 request and issued an emergency bid request for the chemical at the same time. The EPA proceeded with a possible certificate of need for sodium hypochlorite out of “an abundance of caution” in case a new supplier couldn’t be found, Costello said.