No water pipeline extension for Loudoun community

After years of complaints, debate and litigation over water quality concerns in the Raspberry Falls community north of Leesburg, a solution has been identified: Loudoun Water will install a membrane filtration system for the subdivision.

The board of Loudoun Water passed a resolution Thursday to proceed with the additional water treatment measure. The decision followed a vote by the Leesburg Town Council on Tuesday to reject the option of selling water to the community through a pipeline extension from the town to Raspberry Falls.

Raspberry Falls residents have long maintained that their community’s water supply is compromised because of the surrounding porous limestone, a rocky terrain that does not filter contaminants from the water supply as effectively as sand or soil.

In November 2010, the Virginia Department of Health reported that tainted surface water had seeped into the untreated groundwater feeding one of the subdivision’s two wells, a finding that resulted in mounting concerns among community members.

As a result, Loudoun Water launched a months-long study to identify possible long-term solutions. In November, Loudoun Water’s board of directors settled on two viable options: an advanced water-treatment method — the membrane filtration system — or building a water pipeline extension from Leesburg to Raspberry Falls.

On Tuesday, five members of the Leesburg Town Council voted against continuing to examine the pipeline option, which would require that the county Board of Supervisors vote to rezone the affected area in the county’s general plan. In a statement Friday, Loudoun Water said the council’s action effectively “eliminated the pipeline as a viable option for Raspberry Falls.”

At the council meeting Tuesday, Leesburg Vice Mayor Kevin D. Wright said that the membrane filtration system was the most cost-effective way to address the problem and that there is no evidence of current health risks to Raspberry Falls. All treated water provided to residents has continually met established water quality standards, he said.

As a result, Wright said, a pipeline extension was not the right choice.

“I view this pipeline option as a distraction, because they have a means to solve it more cost-effectively. . . . Loudoun Water does not have a health-safety welfare issue that they cannot resolve in Raspberry Falls without our help,” he said. “Any means of supporting further study based on what I know today would be an act of bad faith.”

Wright was joined by Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd and Town Council members Kelly Burk, Katie Sheldon Hammler and Fernando Martinez in the vote to reject the possibility of a pipeline extension.

Town Council members David S. Butler and Thomas S. Dunn II cast the opposing votes, urging fellow council members to consider the long-term health risks to the community, as well as the possible financial benefit to Leesburg if the town were to sell water to Raspberry Falls.

“No one has said that there is a health-safety welfare issue today,” Butler said. “That’s not even an issue on the table. The issue is that it’s virtually inevitable that in the karst [porous limestone] geology area, which all the Raspberry Falls wells and residents are [in], that all those wells will sooner or later become contaminated with surface water.”

Some Raspberry Falls residents have pointed to anecdotal accounts of illnesses as evidence that people have been sickened by contaminated water, but officials with the Virginia Department of Health have said they found no conclusive evidence of illnesses caused by the community’s water.

Butler also said that through a wholesale arrangement to provide water to Raspberry Falls, the financial benefit to Leesburg could range from $75,000 to $100,000 annually.

Dunn echoed Butler’s points.

“I want to remind everybody that Loudoun Water has said repeatedly throughout this process, ‘We don’t need to do anything,’ ” he said. “Yes, they’re in litigation over it, and they’re realizing that they do have to do something.”

Dunn also said Leesburg’s decision did not have to hinge on the possibility of a health crisis.

“Since when do we have to have people in dire straits to make them our customers to our utility department?” he said. “Why can’t we sell them water because we’re in the water sales business?”

At the meeting Thursday, the board of Loudoun Water resolved to proceed with the design phase of the membrane treatment system, Loudoun Water spokesman Mark Peterson said.

A timeline for the construction and completion of the system has not been determined, Peterson said.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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