Area lacks pollutant inventory
HUNTINGTON — West Virginia American Water’s Huntington Treatment Plant carries a high susceptibility ranking for contamination with more potentially significant contaminants upstream than any other water system in the area, but very little is known about those pollutants and their impact on Cabell County’s main water supply, according to a state report published in June 2003.
The unanswered questions may come as unsettling in light of a Jan. 9 chemical spill, which leaked Crude MCHM from Freedom Industries into the Elk River and subsequently into the water company’s Kanawha Valley intake a mile downstream.
West Virginia American Water claimed to have zero knowledge of the chemical’s presence at Freedom Industries, but reassures those living in Cabell County that adequate monitoring exists upstream and at Huntington’s water intakes to detect almost anything before it impacts the local water supply, said Sandy Johnson, water quality supervisor at the Huntington Treatment Plant. Her facility also benefits from a catalog of top concerns as cataloged by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO).
“New chemicals are produced every day, new industry is moving in every day, so you can’t be 100 percent prepared,” she said. “We’ve been on the Ohio River. We know what is there all of the time. We’re testing it. I’m proud of the Ohio River that it has cleaned up over years. Instead of being more polluted, it’s getting cleaner and cleaner. I’m very proud of getting our water from there.”
A state report regarded by some authorities and experts as Huntington’s best inventory of possible contaminants relies on more than decade-old information. The June 2003 assessment cataloged possible sites and placed each on a map with no further details identifying the potential contaminant, according to officials at the state Source Water Assessment and Wellhead Protection Program.
State officials followed the assessment in 2006 with an emergency contingency and land management plan for Huntington, but like the initial effort, Source Water Protection leaders said it did little to detail specific contaminants.
Also still lacking nearly 11 years later is the June 2003 report’s prescribed next step, a source water protection plan. Officials cited a lack of funding.
Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies in Morgantown, W.Va., said the January spill underscores the need for better information. He testified last month before state lawmakers after co-authoring a report that analyzed the Charleston spill. His recommendations called for updating of the decade-old assessments and drafting the protections plans, some of which have never been completed. He urged state lawmakers to mandate both items and provide the necessary funding.
“It’s not unreasonable to have a very accurate, up-to-date listing of all sites,” Hansen said. “It’s not unreasonable to be taking active steps with each site to make sure no spills occur.”
Del. Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee, which provides oversight of the state’s Bureau for Public Health and its Source Water Protection Unit. He acknowledged Hansen’s advice and speculated changing administrations as well as legislative inaction may have contributed to a lack of further action.
“We treated the whole issue with less than the respect it deserves,” he said. “I think it’s a basic human characteristic to overlook that which is not staring you right in the eye. In this particular case, it was absolutely a perfect storm of ambivalence.”
Unfinished state business
West Virginia American Water’s lack of information on the MCHM upstream from its Kanawha Valley plant could lead many to question what’s different at the same company’s Huntington facility, as well as that of local water districts across Cabell and its surrounding counties.
Perdue fears it could be the same story.
“I’m sure it’s not any different,” he said citing outdated state records. “Suggestions were made within the (Safe) Water Act. Part of it was done, but nothing was done any further. We’re in that area in between an understanding of a problem and actually resolving the problem. And, for a very long period of time, we forgot the problem existed.”
Amendments to the U.S. Safe Water Act in 1996 mandated states develop and implement source water assessment and protection for all public water systems.
The Kanawha Valley assessment, completed in April 2002, revealed 51 potential contaminants upstream along the Elk River and its tributaries. Huntington’s report followed in June 2003 revealing 424 potential contaminants along the Ohio and Guyandotte rivers and their tributaries.
The assessments referenced a system’s entire watershed, but paid specific attention to its zone of critical concern where contaminant sites were cataloged. Huntington’s boundary zone was based upon a 5-hour time of travel extending from the system’s intake upstream during a time of swift flow as developed with guidelines created by ORSANCO.
Each assessment included a map detailing its zone of critical concern with a series of dots to identity any site of potential contamination. A brief, detailed summary then provided a generalized description of the sites, but neither specified the potential contaminant nor the name of the site’s owner.
William Toomey, unit manager for the state’s Source Water Protection Program, repeatedly described the June 2003 assessment as a starting point. Any further action would have been voluntary.
“We did what we called mainly a windshield survey that went out and drove along the roads, but they didn’t go on private property,” he said. “They didn’t go beyond just saying, ‘Oh, this is a chemical factory.’”
Toomey’s assistant, Scott Rodeheaver, further explained the windshield surveys did not research state Department of Environmental Protection records, which would have provided more specifics about chemicals on site. He said local emergency officials may have better information about contaminants in their area.
“We had a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time,” Rodeheaver said.
Funding dried up thereafter, limiting any further progress on protection strategies aimed at contingency and management planning, as well as the identifying of alternative water sources.
Rodeheaver said his agency completed protection plans for several communities and various pieces of a plan for others. Huntington fell into the latter category, receiving an emergency contingency and land management plan in 2006. Toomey said the state sent those plans as an effort to foster communication with surface water systems, such as West Virginia American Water in Huntington, and others taking water directly from a river or stream.
But like the initial assessment reports and protection plans in other communities, Toomey said the clock is ticking toward new worries.
“Those protection plans are starting to get older,” Toomey said. “If they’re not updated, then we’re going to still lose a lot of momentum in keeping them current.”
Hansen’s report underscored that potential by pointing to the Kanawha Valley’s source water assessment completed in April 2002. It identified the Elk River facility as being owned by Pennzoil Manufacturing Plant, overlooking two changes in ownership and a switch in chemicals stored at the site.
“New businesses open all of the time, and some types need to be addressed in source water protection plans,” Hansen said.
Billie Suder, statewide manager of water quality and environmental compliance for West Virginia American Water, also mentioned the state’s Source Water Assessment Reports contained inaccuracies, such as identifying potential contaminants downstream from a water system’s intake.
Huntington’s zone of critical concern
The June 2003 assessment identified Huntington’s zone of critical concern as extending 25 miles upstream of the Ohio River. That runs just north of the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam near Gallipolis Ferry, W.Va. A map within the June 2003 assessment designates the zone with a red boundary line encompassing both the river itself and numerous streams flowing in from Ohio and West Virginia.
Nearly half of the potential contamination sites were characterized as industrial. The detailed summary described those 206 sites as gas, oil, metals, energy, chemicals and trucking companies, along with wastewater treatment facilities and machine shops.
The majority of the industrial sites were located along the Guyandotte River and its tributaries. Its reach extends upstream to Roach Road south of Barboursville and the southernmost point of Merritt Creek off W.Va. 10, as well as east to Wire Branch in Ona and the Mud River just shy of Milton.
Johnson acknowledged the Guyandotte River’s inclusion due to one of the plant’s intake locations being positioned off 24th Street in the Ohio River. She estimated its mid-channel depth at 19 feet under water. She said such a spot decreases potential contamination from the Guyandotte River, explaining the intake location’s depth and proximity to the Guyandotte’s mouth limits its ability to quickly mix with the deepest portion of the Ohio River.
The Guyandotte River sites would have no impact on the treatment plant’s other intake location, which Johnson estimated at a similar depth north of the Guyandotte River.
Suder agreed with Rodeheaver that any incident further north toward Pittsburgh, by way of the Ohio River, and east to Charleston, via the Kanawha River, would encounter significant dilution and added layers of protection, including ORSANCO’s organic detection system. For instance, MCHM readings from the Jan. 9 spill were more than 30 times less than peak readings in Charleston as the plume reached Huntington’s intakes approximately 100 miles downstream.
Other potential contaminants documented in Huntington’s zone of critical zone were categorized as municipal (26.4 percent), commercial (22.4 percent), agricultural (1.4 percent) and residential (1.2 percent).
The municipal summary listed schools, a jail and correctional facility, mobile home parks, subdivisions, recycling facilities and an air park, along with sewage, wastewater and water treatment facilities.
Potential commercial contaminants were noted at car dealerships, a hospital, cemeteries, gasoline stations, auto repair shops, pharmacies, lumber yards, marinas, car washes, industrial recycling facilities, printing companies, junkyards and a utility substation.
Noted agricultural concerns were pasture land, an orchard, fair lands and a nursery. No further information was provided about residential contaminants, although Rodeheaver said examples could include a failed septic system or yard materials, such fertilizer and pesticides.
Water company confident
West Virginia American Water officials feel the Huntington Treatment Plant is well equipped to detect a potential problem, because of its robust monitoring procedures and the upstream testing completed by ORSANCO. Johnson said internal monitoring includes continuous automated tests and manual sampling every two hours, in addition to once-per-shift manual tests that utilize state-of-the-art technology provided by ORSANCO last spring.
The Cincinnati-based commission uses its organic detection system to monitor water quality along the Ohio River. That includes upstream gauges located in Huntington, Parkersburg, W.Va., and at American Electric Power’s John E. Amos Plant along the Kanawha River in Putnam County.
“You get a full spectrum look at the organics in that water,” Suder said, noting the technology. “Whenever you’re looking at that, you can detect any type of known organic that’s been quantified and associated in that library. So when you have these spills it’s an excellent network with the Huntington plant as well as others in the organics detection system.”
The monitoring alerts water officials to potential hazards, however, like state officials, the company indicated its Huntington plant does not have a comprehensive list of potential contaminants within the June 2003 assessment’s zone of critical concern.
Johnson said ORSANCO provides her plant a list of the Ohio River’s top potential contaminants. The utility would not release that list, but Johnson said it is currently under revision. She was unsure as to how often it is updated.
Also unavailable for release were the Huntington Treatment Plant’s internal vulnerability assessment and its related emergency response plan. Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan cited federal bioterrorism amendments to the Safe Water Act, passed in 2002, in declining public release.
Suder said the vulnerability assessment examined more than potential upstream threats, instead focusing on plant operations and generic threats, such as flooding, droughts and power outages. She could not comment as to any updates of Huntington’s vulnerability assessment, but said its filing met a Dec. 31, 2003, deadline with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The plant’s emergency response plan met a similar deadline for certification six months later, Suder said.
Like most water systems, West Virginia American Water officials interviewed said the Huntington plant does not have a fully operational, alternative water source. Jordan said an interconnection exists with the Kanawha Valley distribution system between Milton and Culloden, however that link could not provide full service to Huntington in the time of a complete shutdown.
Jordan estimated last month Huntington’s round-the-clock treatment plant could endure a six-hour shutdown of its two Ohio River intake locations. Anything longer would result in customers losing water service, she said.
Need for local participation
West Virginia American Water officials in Huntington have the trust of Jerry Beckett, emergency planner for Cabell County. He could not vouch for the company’s knowledge of upstream contaminants, but said he remains confident in the ability and skill of its local officials to know when to shut the plant’s intakes.
“I think the public needs to be confident,” he said. “I can understand why they are not, but I have dealt with these folks. They have always dealt with me straight up. They have nothing to hide. They’re concerned about safety as much as anybody.”
Beckett said county officials are putting together a committee to examine and identify contaminants that could potentially harm the local water supply. In addition to the June 2003 assessment, Beckett said local officials have access to federally mandated reports for companies that store or transport significant amounts of hazardous materials no matter its proximity to a water source.
Beckett and others interviewed said the transportation reports are just as valuable as those for fixed sites.
Toomey and Rodeheaver, while acknowledging the lack of funding and regulations at the state level, applauded local efforts aimed at protecting water systems. Rodeheaver urged those concerned to reach out to their local water supply and indicate their desire to form a citizen source water team. They said grassroots efforts are important as what makes sense can vary from community to community as do the potential contaminants in each area.
Water company officials interviewed said they would welcome any such local involvement.
“I think the more people that have this top-of-mind awareness and can be thinking of ways to better protect our water resources — that can only add value,” Jordan said. “That can only be a benefit to every customer who drinks water, every customer who is served by a public water system.”
Jordan added her company is not taking a stand on any specific legislative. She said the utility obviously supports any measures for quicker notification and better containment, but said specifics as to such measures are not the utility’s field of expertise. Her company views the Jan. 9 incident as a chemical spill best prevented by keeping a contaminant from entering the water supply.
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