For the first time in more than two decades, Woodstock's manganese problem has returned.
In the mid to late 1990s, the town invested close to a million dollars to install a modern manganese filtration system to answer ongoing concerns.
During Woodstock council-in-committee meeting Tuesday, May 17, Harold Boomer, from the town's water and sewer department, provided an outline, background and repair challenges of the manganese filtration system to council members.
"Several weeks ago, during some scheduled maintenance, we had some issues with the valve actuators at the well house," Boomer said.
Over time, he said corrosion resulted in the equipment failure of three valves that "decimated" the automatic control system.
While town staff can open and manually operate the affected valves to meet municipal water supply demands, Boomer explained, they cannot carry out a system backwash needed to control the manganese levels.
He said supply-chain issues significantly delayed getting the parts needed to make repairs.
"When we call suppliers now and ask for a part, they say, 'do you want that in 2023 or 24,'" Boomer said.
He said staff headed online, searching potential sources across North America for the needed parts. They finally found success, and the vital parts are on the way.
"So, as of 4 o'clock today, we were reassured that our valve actuators will be with us by the end of the week, and they are the last component we need," he said.
Once the parts are in hand, Boomer said repairs shouldn't take long, but he'd make no promises on a timeline.
Boomer reflected on the problems almost 25 years ago when the town paid more than $900,000 for the filtration system to correct the severe manganese issue.
He said the town regularly received complaints about the staining of white linens, sinks and toilets. He said public works staff always had bottles of Iron OUT rust stain remover in the vehicles to deliver to frustrated residents.
"I pray we don't reach that level again before we get these repairs done. It's deja vu all over again," Boomer said.
Booner assured council members that the town does regular testing for various contaminants and is meeting all New Brunswick's health and environmental standards.
Coun. While commending Boomer and the public works staff for the job they are doing to keep clean water running, Trina Jones questioned the health concerns with high levels of manganese in the system.
She said facts had changed significantly since Woodstock's manganese crisis in the late '90s.
Jones pointed to Health Canada's directive in 2019, pointing out health risks associated with high consumption of manganese. Health Canada has set a MAC (Maximum Acceptable Concentration) of 0.12 mg/L (120µg/L) for manganese in drinking water.
While New Brunswick Public Health never adopted the Health Canada standard, Jones expressed concern to hear about samples far above the 0.12 level.
"I think we can expect the general public to ask us and you the simple question, 'is it safe to drink our water?' and right now, if I get that phone call, it doesn't feel like I could comfortably answer that question," she said.
Boomer acknowledged the concern but cautioned against a "knee-jerk" reaction, explaining that people still don't fully understand manganese.
He said Woodstock is a leader in North America for manganese reduction, and the current problems directly result from supply-chain issues.
Jones noted Health Canada raised specific concerns about the level of manganese in the water mixed with baby formula. She suggested staff reach out to Health Canada for advice on keeping the public informed.
"We want to be confident we're advising the public the best we can so they can make an informed decision," Jones said.
Coun. Mark Rogers asked if charcoal filters such as Brita would remove manganese. Boomer said it would help, but the benefit would be limited.
Mayor Art Slipp asked if mothers should mix formula with bottled water until the system is repaired.
Boomer said that's a "double-edged sword," noting bottled water lacks minerals, including manganese. He pointed out babies need those minerals, including some manganese.
"That would have to be a judgement call by the parents," Boomer said.
On Wednesday, May 18, the town issued an update on the problem, noting staff hoped to complete the repairs in "the next few days."
It added hydrant flushing — which would exacerbate the manganese problem if completed while the filtration system is working — would follow the repairs. Residents would notice improved water quality at that point, the release said.
The release also said residents could find information about manganese and the Canadian Drinking Water Quality guidelines on the Town of Woodstock's website.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun