Water crisis: what went wrong.

About 300,000 West Virginia residents have learned the hard way that we take clean, fresh water for granted.   It’s reasonable to expect that what comes out of the tap is safe to drink, cook with and use for bathing.

But since last Thursday evening, customers of West Virginia American Water Company in nine counties have felt like they’re living in third world country, rushing to buy bottled water and lining up at temporary distribution points to fill containers with potable water.

Public officials have been concentrating on getting water to people and testing water in the lines to determine the levels of Crude MCHM. That chemical got into the water system last week when it leaked from a storage facility at Freedom Industries into the Elk River, about a mile and a half upstream from WVAWC’s intake.

Those same public officials have been cautious about casting blame until the crisis is over and there’s a full investigation, but here are some points to consider.

Freedom Industries is responsible for the leak. It’s their tank or their property and it’s the company’s obligation to maintain the structural integrity of its facilities.   The tank that leaked was more than 50 years old and the state DEP officials say the leak containment system was virtually non-existent.

Freedom responded too slowly to the leak.  A citizen reported a strong odor to the DEP around eight o’clock Thursday morning.  DEP tracked it to Freedom Industries by 11:00 a.m., where employees were apparently unaware of the leak, despite a powerful smell.

West Virginia American Water Company believed that its sophisticated filtration system would handle the spill, and only several hours later issued the do-not-use order after it became apparent the chemical was getting through.  It’s important to note that had WVAWC stopped the intake it would have dropped pressure in the lines, putting fire service at risk.

The chemical that spilled is not considered toxic or hazardous, and it would take extremely high concentrations to cause any serious health problems.  However, once WVAWC made the decision to impose the do-not-use order, it had to establish a process for determining acceptable levels, a time-consuming process requiring hundreds of separate tests throughout the system.

Freedom Industries tank farm does not require any specific permitting, beyond a standard license for rainwater runoff.   “There was no environmental framework in place to stop the leak in the tank or the secondary containment,” DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told me.

But he believes there should be.  He has already talked with Governor Tomblin about legislation this session to establish a permitting process for storage facilities like Freedom.

Huffman says the state needs the ability to “dictate in advance” whether a proposed storage facility and the back-up containment systems are reliable.  He says Freedom’s leaky tank “could not have passed any sort of reasonable standard.”

Accidents are going to happen, but the subsequent question is whether such accidents are preventable and if the impact can be mitigated.   Initially, the answer to both questions appears to be “yes.”



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