Safeguards in place to prevent water disaster locally

As the investigation continued this week into a chemical spill that impacted the drinking water of an estimated 300,000 West Virginia residents, local officials say precautions are in place to help prevent a similar situation in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

On Jan. 9 a leak from a Freedom Industries chemical storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., contaminated drinking water for residents in a nine-county area served by the West Virginia American Water Company that draws a portion of its water out of the Elk River.

“But comparing that water system with ours is like comparing night and day. That would never happen here,” said Jeff Kephart, water superintendent for the city of Marietta, noting that American Water processed its drinking water directly out of the river.

“We draw groundwater from seven wells in our well field, and do not use any surface water at all,” he said. “And our well field is not dependent on the Muskingum River.”

Marietta’s well field is located in bottom land along the Muskingum, but Kephart said any river water that might reach the well field aquifer would be filtered through a lot of sand and rock first.

He said there are multiple well fields that are the sources of drinking water for a variety of local communities along the Muskingum and Ohio rivers, but none draw directly from the rivers.

There have been chemical leaks at industrial sites along the Ohio River-the most recent occurred last week at the Kraton plant in Belpre where a leak of diethyl ether and cyclohexane developed on Jan. 9, followed the next day by another small vapor leak of a cooling solvent.

The first leak caused a fish kill in nearby Davis Creek where booms and aeration were used to clean up the contamination. The second leak was contained within the plant and treated with the facilities water suppression system.

Kraton spokesman Mike White said both leaks were likely due to last week’s sub-zero temperatures.

On Thursday White said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires chemical companies to have plans in place to address accidental releases of oil and other hazardous substances.

“Our plans include prevention programs that include safety precautions and maintenance, monitoring and employee training measures,” he said. “We also have an emergency response program that spells out employee training measures and procedures for informing the public and response agencies such as local volunteer fire departments, cleanup response contractors, and any downstream water users should an accident occur.”

Wally Kandel, plant manager at Solvay Specialty Polymers on Ohio 7, south of Marietta, noted the plant does not have any barge terminals on the Ohio River where spills could occur into the waterway.

“We take protection of people and the environment very seriously,” he said. “We have significant oversight of our facilities that companies in other states don’t have. The EPA is here four times a year inspecting our facilities, and we train our employees to know that they’re empowered to respond to any malfunction that threatens safety.”

Kandel said Solvay is part of the Central Ohio Valley Industries Emergency Organization (COVIEO), a cooperative effort among plants up and down the Ohio River to share resources in case of an emergency situation.

Mike Young, plant manager for Cytec Industries along the Ohio River north of Marietta near Willow Island, W.Va., said that facility is also part of the COVIEO group.

“We also have a number of measures to prevent contamination of ground or surface waters, including multiple containment in storage tanks, and regular thickness and integrity testing of tank walls,” he said.

Like Solvay, Young said Cytec has no storage tanks near the river.

Kephart said the city of Marietta should be more concerned about localized contamination of its well fields which are generally located between the Marietta Aquatic Center and the Washington County Fairgrounds.

“Thousands of cars park on our well field during the fair and throughout the summer,” he said. “That’s what we should be more concerned about.”

A leak of antifreeze, oil, brake or transmission fluid could easily contaminate one or more of the city wells, Kephart said.

“We should have very limited activities in the well field,” he said.

He noted vehicles carrying hazardous materials along Muskingum Drive, which parallels the well fields, should also be a concern for the city.

“We have to keep an eye on that area, too,” Kephart said.

Jeff Lauer, director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency, said the EMA has an all-hazard emergency plan that could be used in the event of drinking water contamination in this area.

“If it did occur we would open the emergency operations center from where water distribution would be coordinated, similar to what we did when the derecho windstorm hit and knocked out power to the entire area (in 2012),” he said.

Lauer said the county’s emergency notification call-down system would be used to alert residents whose water could be impacted by a chemical spill. He noted the EMA has also been working to improve communications with the public through local media outlets during times of emergency.

“Our Local Emergency Planning Committee is also meeting on a monthly basis now,” he said. “And we always look at how other communities handle hazardous situations, trying to learn from their disasters. There’s always room for improvement.”

Water advice:

In preparing for an emergency, store at least a three-day supply of water for each member of your family.

In cases resulting in the contamination of your community’s water supply, having a two-week stock of clean water is advisable.

A normally active person needs to drink at least two quarts of water each day, but that amount can vary. Children, nursing mothers and ill people may need more, and during summer you should double the amount of water stored.

You will also need additional water for food preparation and hygiene. Storing at least one gallon of water per person, per day is recommended when preparing for an emergency. An adequate supply of water for pets should also be included.

Commercially bottled water can be purchased at most retail establishments. Check the label for an expiration date. If none is given, bottled water with the IBWA or NSF seal should have a shelf life of at least one year.

You can also store water for an extended period in the freezer. Leave 2 to 3 inches of air space at the top of the container to keep it from breaking as the water expands during freezing.

Source: Colorado State University.