Erin Brockovich is fuming about the chemicals in Stockton’s drinking water, and fearful residents are protesting at City Hall.
The mayor is less than reassuring – he doesn’t trust the tap water in any city. The media is captivated, and three weeks into Stockton’s convulsion over the use of a routine water disinfectant, the city manager is exhausted.
“I’m so tired,” said the manager, Kurt Wilson.
The controversy surrounding the use of chloramines, he said, “hasn’t helped.”
I’m so tired ... Chloramines hasn’t helped.
Stockton City Manager Kurt Wilson
There was little reason to expect an uprising when Stockton began using chloramines, a compound of chlorine and ammonia, to disinfect municipal water last month. The compound, an alternative to chlorine, has been used since the 1930s to remove bacteria and viruses from water in cities throughout the United States, including in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
In Stockton, the disinfectant drew little attention when the City Council – Mayor Anthony Silva included – approved its use unanimously in 2013.
But critics have said the compound could be unhealthy and corrode homeowners’ pipes. As this city of nearly 300,000 people prepared to introduce the compound into water in the northern part of its service area, Brockovich took notice.
“Congratulations to the City of Stockton, California,” the environmental activist wrote on Facebook. “You’re adding ammonia to your drinking water because you’re too lazy and cheap to remove dirt (organics) from your water supplies...You’re on the fast track to creating the next Flint, Michigan.”
The city has made efforts to distinguish itself from downtrodden Flint, whose water system is in such crisis that homegrown filmmaker Michael Moore has called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to be arrested.
In Stockton, Silva organized a forum and invited Brockovich to speak. More than 1,000 people came, and when Brockovich took the stage on Monday, at an auditorium on the San Joaquin Delta College campus, a woman in the crowd yelled, “Thank you for being our voice!”
I don’t trust the tap water in any city.
Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva
The event highlighted the degree to which Brockovich and Silva “struck a nerve,” said Keith Smith, a political science professor at University of the Pacific.
Brockovich, who worked to uncover illnesses associated with poisoned water in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley – and who was played by Julia Roberts in the film dramatizing her story – holds some credibility on water issues, Smith said.
What had been a “minor, technical decision made by the city about how to treat its water,” he said, turned into a “social media freak out.”
Stockton is not the first city to attract controversy for the use of chloramines, with flare-ups in Vermont, Washington and San Luis Obispo County, among other places.
But the city appears to have been uniquely primed for this level of unrest. It was only last year that Stockton emerged from bankruptcy. Removed from the population centers of the coast and twice ranked by Forbes magazine as America’s most miserable city, it is unaccustomed to celebrity interest.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Kathy Miller, a former Stockton councilwoman, attributed the uproar to “the celebrity aspect of this.”
“We literally had people around here saying, ‘Did you hear Julia Roberts is coming to town?’ ” she said.
Federal, state and local authorities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all say chloramines are safe at levels used in drinking water. Millions of Americans use tap water treated by the compound.
“It’s not like Stockton’s being asked to take on a risky new technology that hasn’t been tested,” said David Sedlak, a professor of environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. “They’re kind of adopting a technology that’s widely used around the United States.”
Yet researchers have found that chloramines, if not properly monitored, can corrode lead and copper, and they can damage rubber hoses and gaskets. The water has to be filtered before it can be used for kidney dialysis.
Brockovich said more research should be done on the compound’s health effects, and that employing it only masks underlying contamination in the drinking water.
“Something’s going very wrong,” she said in an interview. “I think that these people want some answers. I think these people are going to come out in force. They already are.”
Brockovich’s efforts in Stockton have also met resistance.
Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, told forum-goers Monday that “living is risky” and no water treatment system is perfect. He recited the number of homicides and traffic deaths in the city last year and said the use of chloramines “does not pose an unreasonable threat to human health.”
Days after the forum, Bill Loyko, a local water activist, said Brockovich should “keep her nose out of our business.”
“She’s not doing any good for us,” he said, “other than ramping everybody up.”
Erin Brockovich should keep her nose out of our business.
Stockton water activist Bill Loyko
But to Silva, ramping people up is a public service.
“Erin, that’s what she does,” he said. “She riles crowds. She brings things to people’s attention.”
Silva is running for re-election and agitating for a strong-mayor form of government, hoping to remove day-to-day operations of the city from the city manager.
His own vote for chloramines in 2013, he said, followed minimal discussion. If water treatment “stays a hot issue,” he said, he will ask the council to revisit the treatment method.
Silva said he worries about chemicals in any water and is contemplating using bottled water for his Top Ramen. He is also plans to commission a public poll on chloramines.
“I listen to the people,” he said. “A poll will tell me what I need to do.”
In an acknowledgment of public concern about chloramines, Wilson posted a video on the city website addressing the change. In it, he drinks from from a cup of water to demonstrate that it is safe.
His view is that most people are comfortable with the new water treatment, but he worries about those who aren’t.
“That is of concern to us because these are, for the most part, well-intentioned people who are doing what they believe is in the best interest of their families,” he said. “So for us, it’s very important to get to the place where we have their comfort level.”
Wilson cast it as a public relations problem.
“The science is actually the easy part of all this,” he said.