These days, when Julie Bourque whips up spaghetti for dinner in her Brooklyn Center kitchen, she keeps a jug of store-bought water nearby. Her mac and cheese “tasted like bleach” several months ago, and she has since shunned tap water for cooking.
“I don’t feel safe giving it to my daughter anymore,” she said.
Bourque’s worries underscore a concern shared by households scattered throughout the city: The water reeks of chlorine and sometimes contains black specks.
Since the inner-ring suburb debuted a $20 million water treatment plant a year ago in January, about 200 complaints related to water have poured into the city. The issue also has hit local social media groups.
Some residents worry that the water is resulting in withered plants, skin issues and sick pets. Others are uneasy about the black debris, some of it pebble-sized, spurting from their faucets.
City officials insist the water is safe, while admitting that aesthetic issues are more than anticipated.
The new treatment plant filters out the city’s once-high levels of iron as well as manganese, which research shows can pose health risks in higher concentrations. Since the new plant opened, manganese and iron have reached almost nondetectable levels, staffers said.
Some have noticed less cloudy water. “I’ve actually seen a big improvement,” said Amy Harth, adding that excess iron used to yellow her water.
The black specks muddying the tap water of others, officials said, is residual manganese being flushed out of the system — an issue they hope is temporary.
“There is no smoking gun here,” said Public Works Director and City Engineer Steve Lillehaug. “The real issue is that our water is cleaner.”
State health officials agree. Tests show that Brooklyn Center’s water is within levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, according to the Minnesota Health Department.
The chlorine odor in some homes, officials said, stems from new water chemistry and a switch in the way the city is disinfecting its water.
“We have to give that [process] some time so we can tweak it and work out what’s best,” said Mayor Tim Willson.
Brooklyn Center used to feed an ammonia-chlorine compound, called chloramines, into the water to disinfect it. Last spring, the city fully switched to breakpoint chlorination, which rids the water of all naturally occurring ammonia and cleans it with free chlorines.
“It’s safer, it’s cheaper and it’s easier,” Lillehaug said.
The city’s water supply, Lillehaug added, contains naturally high and changing levels of ammonia, making it tricky to fine-tune the amount of disinfectants.
But some residents point out that it has been months since the new process debuted. They say they’re at their wits’ end with the water.
“We’re all nervous about it,” Bourque said. “What are we supposed to do? Bathe in chlorine water?”
Dark sediment spewing from faucets especially has raised alarm. Health officials, however, say it shouldn’t be a cause for worry if it’s manganese.
There’s a difference between solidified manganese and manganese that’s dissolved in water, said Jim Kelly, who studies groundwater contaminants with the state Health Department. If the element is solid, “It’s much less of a concern,” Kelly said.
But the black flecks have Jessica Kempkes worried, especially when they fill the tub while her son is in it.
“It’s degrading to have such icky water,” Kempkes said. “I’m a single parent and don’t have enough money to buy a household filter.”
Meanwhile, some residents say the chlorine stench is so strong that their shower smells like a swimming pool.
Sara Scholl said she suspects the water changes are also at the root of new skin problems as well as her dogs’ bladder problems, both of which started last spring. She now buys cases of water and keeps a bottle by the sink to brush her teeth with.
She also recently purchased a house filtration system to combat the chlorine taste.
“We deferred our mortgage payment for February so we could put this in,” Scholl said. “I don’t even give the water to my dogs anymore.”
On the northwestern edge of town, Brian and Anne Fellegy keep their kitchen stocked with cases of water.
“It’s caused absolute chaos in a lot of households,” Brian Fellegy said, adding he would like to see a community forum to allow residents to voice concerns.
More tests planned
Lillehaug said the city plans to have an outside consultant come in — “to see if we missed something” — and that he hopes to bring the issue back before the City Council in the next few months.
One decision facing the council is whether to revert to the original disinfecting process.
Some wonder if that would restore a more uniform, less chlorine-like taste. Such a switch would mean about $40,000 to $50,000 in capital costs and $30,000 annually for chemicals, Lillehaug said.
City officials said they’re waiting on the results of a citywide survey that includes questions about the water.
In the meantime, residents like Bourque remain wary of the tap and say they’ll keep lugging bottled water home from the store.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “We don’t feel heard.”