- a reader's blog comment late last night
Last night was quite an exercise in message control down at the Slough of Despond. What had been a very serious issue in the relevant Staff Report suddenly became no big deal. A problem so inconsequential and trivial that the City Council hired an only $50,000 consultant to fix it. And, as was carefully pointed out, there were far more expensive options available.
While I cannot imagine that the consultant present at this meeting enjoyed hearing herself being publicly described as "a bargain," she did take the check. Commerce is not always accompanied by grace. And with that what had previously been described as the equivalent of a sucking chest wound was suddenly transformed into little more than a paper cut. Like it had all been done with magic.
Which, if you think about it, really is to the credit of the residents of Sierra Madre. Where else can you find a city government that feels it has to carefully spin an issue like nitrification? In most towns you couldn't find 3 people who would care enough to give a whizzle about something like that. But Sierra Madre? It's a different cat. Public perception can be a problem and there is a reason for official concern here. Much better that you just get people focused back on the colored water issue.
Here is what was said previous to last night's City Council meeting on the issue of nitrification. This was taken from the Staff Report dealing with the issue of nitrification in Sierra Madre's present water supply:
However, at last night's City Council meeting, nitrification was suddenly not a problem. With City Manager Elaine Aguilar going so far as to state that the situation had already been dealt with and there is nothing to worry about right now. Which, of course, is most likely true. At least in a narrow sense. Nitrification is a hot weather problem, and we're not there yet. August being when things can really get out of control.
So why the drastic change of direction? Why does it say in the staff report that nitrification is "a situation requiring immediate action," whereas at last night's City Council meeting it was a problem that has been successfully dealt with?
The answer is public relations. It really is a serious problem, and should the public become focused on it the perception that City Hall has failed the taxpayers, and with potentially devastating results, could become the rule rather than the exception it is at the moment. This is one genii the city would prefer stay in its bottle.
This is also why they had to hire a $50,000 consultant. The colored water problem has been around for quite some time now. Do you think that the City Council suddenly developed a burning sense of urgency over this problem? Really? Ironically, last night was the first time in months that they became seriously focused on it. To the point where it was actually discussed at length.
Has colored water become the officially preferred concern for public attention? Is it now being cynically used as a distraction? Maybe so. After all, there is something far worse out there.
If you go to Google and type in "nitrification + blue baby syndrome" page after page of articles linking these two two terms comes up. Here are six.
Nitrates And Drinking Water (link): "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of nitrate as nitrogen (NO3-N) at 10 mg/L (or 10 parts per million) for the safety of drinking water. Nitrate levels at or above this level have been known to cause a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants under six months of age called methemoglobinemia or "blue-baby" syndrome; in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. The symptoms of blue-baby syndrome can be subtle and often confused with other illnesses. An infant with mild to moderate blue-baby syndrome may have diarrhea, vomiting, and/or be lethargic. In more serious cases, infants will start to show obvious symptoms of cyanosis: the skin, lips or nailbeds may develop a slate-gray or bluish color and the infant could have trouble breathing. A sample of the infant’s blood can easily confirm a diagnosis of blue-baby syndrome."
Distribution System Nitrification When Using Chloramines (link): "Nitrite/Nitrate are acute health risks to infants up to six months of age - Methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome)" (Mod: This bullet point review also discusses older pipes as being a factor.)
Drinking Water Nitrification Surveillance Program (link): "Nitrite in drinking water poses an acute health concern, causing serious illness and sometimes death in infants less than six months old from methemoglobinemia (blue-baby syndrome). Nitrification can also cause a loss of the disinfectant residual in the water, leading to other bacteriological problems."
Lesson 21: Nitrates and Nitrites (link): "Nitrites also react directly with hemoglobin in human blood and other warm-blooded animals to produce methemoglobin. Methemoglobin destroys the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen. This condition is especially serious in babies under three months of age. It causes a condition known as methemoglobinemia or "blue baby syndrome". Water with nitrite levels exceeding 1.0 mg/L should not be used for feeding babies."
Nitrification (link): "Nitrate can be reduced in gastrointestinal tract of infants into toxic nitrite, which combines with hemoglobin of the blood, causing respiratory distress or the so-called blue baby syndrome."
Nitrogen in the Environment: Nitrification (link): "Once nitrates get into the groundwater, the greatest concerns are for infants less than one year old and for young or pregnant animals. High levels of nitrates can be toxic to newborns, causing anoxia, or internal suffocation. Seek alternative water sources if nitrate levels exceed the health standard of 10 ppm nitrate-N. Do not boil water to eliminate nitrates. It increases nitrate levels rather than decreasing them. The most common symptom of nitrate poisoning in babies is a bluish color to the skin, particularly around the baby's eyes and mouth. These symptoms of nitrate toxicity are commonly referred to as the "blue-baby" syndrome."
Something that I found a little disturbing last night was the claim by the Mayor and the Mayor Pro Tem that they were unaware of this problem until now. Nitrification is a direct result of the use of chloramines to disinfect drinking water. The SGVMWD, our current source of water, has been using chloramines for years. Certainly they must have run into this problem a few times in the past. Didn't someone there hip Sierra Madre's water staff to the existence of this problem?
I knew nothing about nitrification last week, yet since then I have read dozens of articles about it. Was water staff too busy helping townies at City Hall's front counter to get their reading done? Why is this so big of a surprise for them?
One more thing before I finally move on. Our newly hired consultant on this matter spent some time last night discussing her concerns about pipe corrosion. This following graphic is taken from a presentation called Nitrification : a Year & a Half of Learning (link):
Here is a definition of tuberculation from the Alabama State Water System (link):
microbiological tuberculation -- A condition in older water distribution pipes characterized by reddish brown mounds of various heights attached to the interior of the pipe wall. These mounds are the result of many years of iron and manganese bacterial growth that deposit iron and/or manganese oxides along with particulate matter from the water trapped in the biomass from generations of bacteria. An aging distribution system experiencing this problem is typically characterized by red water, taste and odor problems, turbidity, reduced pressure and flow rates, and a low chlorine residual. Iron bacteria are very common in all water sources with over twenty different iron bacteria that can cause tuberculation. They are generally considered to be non-pathogenic. Tuberculation usually begins with a slime that may show signs of iron oxide precipitation. The iron bacteria, which attach themselves to the interior surface of the pipe, metabolize ferrous ions from the water as an energy source, precipitating ferrous oxide which becomes trapped in the biomass of the tuberculation. In the past, tuberculation usually resulted in replacement of the water distribution pipe; however, more recently, chemical treatments of isolated sections of pipeline have proven both highly effective and less costly.
Old pipes, chloramines, and the approaching hot summer months. Anything we're missing here?
It has been a bad couple of months for the City Manager
During last night's discussion on City Hall's inconvenient (for you) hours, Councilmember Delmar pointed out that it is hardly the time city employees have to spend at the front counter dealing with residents and their concerns that is the only cause of productivity problems there.
I am not sure that Elaine Aguilar was happy to hear that observation. For someone who enjoys control as much as she does, the prospect of the City Council reorganizing the way City Hall does its business cannot be an exciting one for her.
It also raised a question for me that I didn't hear answered. What exactly is it city staff does with its mornings that is more important than handling the needs of the taxpaying citizens who come to City Hall to take care of their business?
Serving donuts to developers at private meetings perhaps?
Elaine certainly must be missing Nancy and Josh right about now.