Experts say WV American Water not appropriately equipped to deal with chemical spill

This is our second post on the direct testimony filed last week in the Public Service Commission’s investigation of West Virginia American Water’s response to the Freedom Industries chemical leak.

Today we are focusing on (1) the lack of appropriate monitoring and testing equipment at the plant; and (2) the poor operation of the system in the days leading up to the spill.

1. Lack of equipment to monitor and test for contaminants and lack of alternate water source
Several witnesses noted that the plant was not well-equipped to deal with a spill. Because the company had no alternative water source, its options were basically limited to modifying the treatment process or shutting down the intake. As Advocates for a Safe Water System’s witness Fred Stottlemyer (former general manager of the Putnam Public Service District) noted, the lack of upstream monitoring equipment and chemical laboratory at the plant was a serious impediment to implementing either of these strategies effectively, because the water utility did not have a clear idea of the concentration of the chemical entering the plant nor the ability to monitor the river to determine when the plume had passed. Mr. Stottlemyer stated that the Putnam Public Service District recently installed upstream monitoring equipment for less than $50,000.

The Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant did have a gas chromatograph and total organic carbon analyzer that were removed about 10 years ago when WV American Water was owned by the German electric utility RWE. As stated by Sustainable Business Council witness Dr. Joseph Cotruvo, “[b]oth of these would have rapidly provided useful information indicating the presence of a large amount of an organic chemical” such as MCHM.

Staff witness David Dove noted that, because of the lack of testing capability at the plant, plant employees were basing their decisions on taste and odor tests. “Given that residents in the area had reported the strong licorice odor outdoors earlier, it may have been difficult to distinguish the outdoor odor from any odor emanating from the water filters. The chemical has been reported to be difficult to taste, making it more difficult to detect. For these reasons, Staff believes that any reliance on such crude and rudimentary methods of detection is insufficient and unreasonable. In Staffs opinion, the Company should have been aware of the chemical located less than 1.5 miles upstream from its intake and installed detection devices prior to the spill.”

2. Poor operation of the distribution system leading up to the spill
Advocates for a Safe Water System’s witness Fred Stottlemyer and Staff witness David Dove discussed the poor operation of the system in the days leading up to the spill. The water system has storage tanks throughout the Kanawha Valley, but several of the tanks serving downtown Charleston were empty or nearly empty at the time of the spill. According to Stottlemyer, standard industry practice is to keep tank levels at about 80%, but the tanks serving downtown Charleston were only 31% full at the time of the spill. Had the company used its excess treatment capacity to pump more water and fill the tanks in the days leading up to the spill, it would have been in a better position to shut off the intake when the spill happened. According to Stottlemyer’s calculations, this action could have allowed the company to shut down the intake for at least 8 and a half hours, potentially avoiding contamination of the distribution system with levels of MCHM greater than 1ppm.

The Staff witness further pointed out that the Kanawha Valley system has had a very high leakage rate for years (over 36%), in violation of the Public Service Commission allowed rate of 15%. This likely contributed to the low storage in the distribution system.

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