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What's Up River From The WVAWC Treatment Plant?

Reported: Jan. 20, 2014 8:07 PM EST
Updated: Jan. 20, 2014 10:36 PM EST
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ON THE ELK RIVER (Kennie Bass) - West Virginia American Water Company's Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant wasn't prepared to deal with the leak of Hex-Meth from the Freedom Industries Chemical site which sits just upriver along the Elk.

Approximately 7500 gallons of the chemical leaked into the waterway forcing a do-not-use order leaving 300,000 people high and dry, and causing the president to declare a federal disaster.

Eyewitness News traveled up the Elk to see if there are any other potential problems lurking along the riverbank.

Although people knew there were chemicals being stored up river from the West Virginia-American Water Company treatment plant, no one really paid much attention to that fact. And here's something else that's troubling. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection really doesn't know what else might be upstream from that plant and could potentially get into the water supply.

In Clendenin, MarkWest Extraction operates its Cobb facility. Five pressurized storage tanks contain mostly propane. Two tanks store a water/oil mixture and another contains used oil. A company spokesman said all the tanks have secondary containment and are inspected daily by plant personnel.

A few miles up river at Queen Shoals, Dominion's Cornwell Station has above ground storage tanks containing motor, used and lube oil, produced and pipeline fluids, ethanol and ethylene glycol. A spokesman said all of the tanks have secondary containment and are inspected monthly and quarterly according to EPA requirements and are visually checked daily for leaks.

Finally, in Sutton, Appalachian Timber Services has been operating since 1972. The company has three 20,000 gallon tanks storing creosote for use in treating railroad ties, switch ties and bridges. A company vice president says each is only filled to a maximum of 17,000 gallons and has secondary containment.

"There's been a class action suit filed here in Braxton County over the creosote smell and the dangers," Edith Tichner of Sutton said. "Plus, there's a trust account set up for people who might have health issues down the road."

While West Virginia-American Water failed to deal with the Hex-Meth released into the water system by Freedom Industries, the company's president said his system can handle many other potential threats.

"We're always prepared," Jeff McIntyre, president of WVAWC, said. "We have a system that's advanced, activated carbon. It can treat diesel spills. It can treat fuel spills. Obviously, it got overwhelmed by this product. I mean, the levels never really got exceptionally high in the water. It's not like we saw ten parts per million, ten times the health limit of that, that's not what we saw. But what we saw was a very odorous compound that got into the treatment system."

Right now, the operations along the Elk are only required to have storm water drainage permits and are not inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection. That will change if the governor's proposal for tighter oversight is approved by the legislature.

"An annual certification process would be ideal where every year these tanks would be looked at and pressure tested and run through a battery of tests and processes so that they could be certified as being safe," Randy Huffman, director of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said. "That probably is the most important thing that we could accomplish."

The man who handles the DEP's on-site response to disasters says much has been learned from the Freedom Industries spill which could aid future efforts should the need arise.

It is different when the meter starts running for real, isn't it?

"It's very different," Mike Dorsey, with the DEP, said. "Time is of the essence, we understand that. Even in training you understand that. But it becomes very clear just how critical it is to make the right moves early on. And early on, quite frankly, you're not sure you're making the right moves. You're doing what you think needs to be done and as time passes does it only become clear that that is the right move or maybe you should have done something a little differently."

Huffman said the reality of how our water system's vulnerability should serve as a wake-up call to everyone charged with protecting it.

Has this given you a different perspective on water?

"I think it has," Huffman said. "Yeah. When you see what the lack of water can do not just to an economy but to a society itself. And I think that maybe we take it for granted when we turn on a faucet and water comes out. This caused me to be more sensitive to that, to really have a better understanding and appreciation for that and how it needs to be protected."

The DEP is compiling of list of storage tanks and sites statewide, but that project is not yet finished.



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