Safety Plans for West Virginia Water Works Was Outdated

The West Virginia water plant overwhelmed by a chemical spill was using a safety plan that hadn’t been updated in 12 years and didn’t account for the coal-cleansing chemical being stored less than 2 miles upstream.

The Source Water Assessment Report for the West Virginia American Water Co. plant in Charleston listed other industrial hazards in the area. There’s no sign it was updated to account for Freedom Industries Inc., which bought and converted the facility from storing gasoline to storing the chemical that leaked Jan. 9, forcing 300,000 people to stop using their water.

Critics said the 12-year-old planning document shows the limits of laws meant to keep U.S. drinking water safe. The American Water Works Association, which represents the industry, said utilities will take a new look at their plans after the spill in West Virginia.

“Utilities across the country are looking again at their water assessment,” Tom Curtis, head of government affairs at the Denver-based association, said in an interview. They are asking, “What’s in the watershed and what do I need to be aware of?” he said.

In addition, regulators and lawmakers may learn more about the regulation for factories, storage facilities or farmers, said Curtis, whose group represents water utilities and manufacturers.

West Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, today proposed legislation to boost inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities and require companies to develop state-approved emergency-response plans. Their bill won backing from Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

State Response

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said that he will push for a state measure to require that public water systems have “proper contingency plans in place.” His office will propose that in a bill to the legislature next week, he said in a statement.

Environmental groups cite the leak of 7,500 gallons of a coal-processing chemical from a Freedom Industries Inc. tank on the banks of the Elk River, less than 2 miles miles upstream from a water intake serving the state capital, to show that protections are lacking for drinking water.

System Flushed

The leak of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol caused the largest do-not-use order ever by the West Virginia water utility, covering 300,000 people in the capital and nine nearby counties. After days of flushing the system, the entire area was cleared today to resume use of the water, with an exemption for a few towns and an advisory that pregnant women avoid drinking it.

Freedom Industries separately today filed for bankruptcy protection, after more than two dozen lawsuits were filed against the company. Lawyers have also been filed against West Virginia American Water, part of American Water Works Co., the nation’s biggest publicly traded water utility.

The company, based in Voorhees, New Jersey, works with local, state and federal agencies to assess risks to water quality, said Denise Free, a company spokeswoman.

“American Water continuously coordinates with responsible state and federal agencies and participates or leads many joint industry and government research projects and working groups to review and recommend ongoing improvements to the water sector,” she said in an e-mail when asked about the West Virginia report.

Drinking Water

The assessment for the Elk River, required by a 1996 drinking water law, was prepared by the West Virginia health department. It says the risk of contamination in the river is high, and recommends that efforts be made to collect information about possible pollution risks.

“Source water protection efforts should be directed toward the establishment of an effective and efficient emergency response plan if one does not currently exist,” according to the assessment.

The West Virginia case shows limits of current rules, which mandate that utilities or localities assess their risks without giving them the power or requiring the deficiencies be remedied, said Erik Olson, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York-based environmental advocacy group.

“It’s pretty clear that a lot of problems were identified, but it’s not clear that anything was done about it,” he said in an interview. “We’re hoping this is a wake-up call to regulators and Congress.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE