Robert Bowcock told a group of Hannibal citizens they actually own the city's water system, and need to be more vocal about water quality concerns.
A crowd estimated at over 150 people gathered on Monday at the Hannibal American Legion to hear Bowcock speak on the negative effects of the disinfectant chloramine.
Bowcock is a water quality expert affiliated with environmentalist Erin Brockovich. He says there are safer alternatives to chloramines, which are a mixture of chlorine and ammonia. The Hannibal Board of Public Works recently switched from chlorine to chloramines in order to bring certain disinfection byproduct levels into compliance with Missouri DNR standards.

Wes Mitchell

The use of chloramines presents its own problems, according to Bowcock. He believes byproducts of chloramines are actually more toxic, but not yet regulated. While the EPA is reviewing chloramine standards, Bowcock says it takes a generation—about 20 years, for new requirements to be implemented.

Bowcock noted possible side effects of chloramine include skin irritation for some with sensitivity to the chemicals, and lung irritation in some people with COPD and asthma. Long term effects can include gastro-intestinal problems which are more likely to show up in people with certain disorders such as colitis. He also said bacteria can build up in water pipes due to ammonia feeding the bacteria. This may increase Legionella bacteria in water systems, although he noted Legionnaires’ Disease is not transmitted by drinking the water, but by breathing the mist from a shower or humidifier. Another costly effect of chloramines is corrosion of water pipes. Bowcock says there are 50 lawsuits regarding ruptured pipes being brought by builders against municipalities across the U.S.

The water expert believes the fix is fairly simple but much more costly. He says removing organic compounds before they go through the treatment process is the answer. A special charcoal filtration process that removes the dirty organic precursors is one solution. Also an air stripping process that forces byproducts out into the air before disinfection is another.

After Bowcock spoke for about an hour, he fielded a number of questions from the audience for another hour. One of the attendees posed a question to his fellow citizens—asking how many were not comfortable drinking Hannibal’s tap water, and instead relied on bottled water. A number of hands were raised.

Chris Stolte is a member of Concerned Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. Stolte researched chloramines and discovered her reverse osmosis water treatment was ineffective in removing them. That’s when she decided to get involved. She contacted Janet Dietrich, who was the lone citizen attending a citizen water treatment meeting at the Hannibal BPW. Another meeting was held with BPW officials, but according to Stolte, the answers were not entirely satisfactory. The group contacted Erin Brockovich, who agreed to send Bowcock to Hannibal. Stolte says more people need to contact the BPW and the Missouri DNR about the issue.

Earlier in the day, Bowcock had met with BPW officials. BPW General Manager Bob Stevenson was in attendance at Bowcock’s meeting with citizens. Stevenson spoke with the media afterward. He said the BPW’s goal is the same as the citizens: clean, safe water, but there are differences in opinion on how to achieve it. Stevenson said options will be discussed at the next BPW Board meeting. That could include hiring another engineer to explore alternative disinfection methods. One of the challenges according to Stevenson is coming up with the money. The Hannibal City Council recently approved the issuance of nearly $13 million in waterworks bonds. Stevenson says all of that money is already appropriated for infrastructure improvements at the water treatment plant, water main extensions, and a new water tower on the South Side.