WV American Water reveals lack of emergency planning in response to Public Service Commission questions

On Wednesday, West Virginia American Water filed their testimony in the Public Service Commission’s investigation of the utility’s response to the Freedom spill. The Commission had specifically ordered WV American Water to respond to 5 questions:

1. A chronological description of the pertinent actions taken by WVAWC personnel beginning when any employee of WVAWC, its parent company, or service company became aware of the spill, through March 31, 2014.
2. A chronological listing of the measurements of MCHM taken by WVAWC and the locations where those measurements were obtained, through March 31, 2014. WVAWC shall provide updated measurements once it has completed replacement of its filters.
3. A narrative describing the process and factors used to decide whether to close the intake structure. The testimony should include which, if any, outside agencies were consulted or otherwise had a role in making the decision, the factors contemplated in making the decision, and who ultimately made the decision regarding the continued intake of raw water from the Elk River.
4. A detailed description of the involvement of all agencies or entities external to WVAWC that were consulted or otherwise involved in developing or implementing protocols used by WVAWC from the first indications of the spill through March 31, 2014.
5. A description of alternatives for water treatment or alternative or supplemental sources of treated or finished water that were considered by WVAWC after it became aware of the MCHM spill.

If you don’t feel like reading all 110 pages of testimony, here is the basic summary of their answers:

1. The company initially learned about the spill from the DEP, who told them that 1,000-2,500 gallons of the chemical had spilled. The company initially assumed that they could remove the chemical by adding powdered activated carbon to the water, but shortly after 4pm they found MCHM in their finished water. The water company’s testimony is rather vague on the question of whether the workers at the water treatment plant had any method other than smell and taste to figure out whether MCHM was in their treated water (“At about 4:00 p.m., the water quality staff first detected indications that some amount of MCHM had passed through the treatment processes; they reported to me that they observed the characteristic odor of MCHM in the filtered water.”) The testimony also describes in detail the process of sampling and testing the distribution system and lifting the “do not use” order.

2. The company conducted testing throughout their distribution system until February 25th, at which point the entire system had MCHM concentrations below 2 ppb (the non-detect threshold). The results of these tests were provided to the PSC.

3. The issuance of the “do not use” order was a joint decision of the water company and the Bureau of Public Health. The company’s decision not to shut off the intake was related to the large volume of water they were pumping through their system due to high water consumption and line breaks associated with the cold weather. On average, the plant produces 28 million gallons per day, but on January 9th it was producing 50% more – 43 million gallons per day. The company stands by its decision not to shut off the intake because doing so would have left residents without water for fire suppression and sanitation for at least 45 days, due to the extreme complexity of the system.

4. The company describes the development of the new protocols that it created after the spill: protocols for flushing, testing for MCHM, the lifting of the “do not use” order, distribution of bulk and bottled water, implementation of bill credits, and the filter change. They note that, “[e]ach of these protocols was substantially new for the Company and developed in connection with the spill response, although many of them drew on the existing expertise of the Company and AWWSC [American Water Works Service Company] personnel”

5. The company did not have any alternative sources of water to draw upon on January 9th.

Additionally, the company defends its lack of monitoring for potential contaminants by noting that:

There are more than 85,000 chemicals in the Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”) inventory maintained by the USEPA; there are about 67,000 additional chemicals that are not on the TSCA list. It is not realistic that we could screen for each one of those on a daily basis, or at any regular frequency, and to my knowledge no water system anywhere in the country does so

Of course no water utility monitors for 152,000 chemicals. To my knowledge, no one has suggested that WV American Water should do this – rather, it has been suggested that they should know what chemicals are actually manufactured and stored upstream of their intake and have some way to detect those chemicals.

WV American Water’s testimony emphasizes the total lack of emergency preparedness on the part of the company. They weren’t monitoring for potential contaminants of their intake. They didn’t even know what those potential contaminants were. They “did not have any workable options to consider on an emergency basis for temporary or permanent alternative sources of raw water.” They had to develop new protocols for how to flush their distribution system and how to distribute bulk water. In short, the company was totally unprepared.

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