This is the third in a short series of posts about what probably should have happened in Charleston, WV a little over a week ago now when a spill of Crude MCHM shutdown the water supply of well over 100,000 people for most of a week. The earlier post (listed below) I described how the water company could have kept the water out of its system in a perfect world.
Even if the Freedom facility and the water treatment facility did not live in a perfect world, if communications had been perfect then the prolonged shutdown and the post-shutdown exposure anxiety could have been avoided in this instance. What would this perfect communication looked like.
Potential Hazards Identified
By all news reports, Freedom Industries had complied with all of its chemical notification requirements. It had filed it reports to State and local authorities about the bulk storage of Crude MCHM. As is typical for these reports, particularly for those chemicals not regulatorially (new word) identified as hazardous, the reports were briefly looked at and then filed.
If the State and local authorities had entered the chemical storage data into an appropriate georgraphical information system (GIS) application, they would have seen that there was just a short distance away a water treatment plant that could be affected in the event of a spill at the Freedom site that made it into the nearby river. While the State and local authorities can be forgiven for not knowing if this could have any specific impact to the treatment facility, they should have notified the facility of the type and quantity of any chemicals in bulk storage upstream of the facility.
If the water treatment facility had received advanced notification from State and local authorities, it could have determined in advance whether or not their routine treatment activities would remove the chemical from any water entering the facility. They also could have acquired the testing capability to detect the chemical in their inlet and output waters.
There is no CERCLA reporting requirement for Crude MCHM as it is not a hazardous chemical and thus does not have a federal ‘reportable quantity’. However, given the close proximity of the tank farm to the Elk River, as soon as the leak broached the containment wall there should have been notification to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC), the agency that is responsible for coordinating all chemical spill information.
One would like to think that the NRC had appropriate GIS programs in place to identify the location of the spill and immediately be aware of the downstream water treatment plant. Immediate notification could then have been made to the plant about the spill.
Assuming that the Elk River is flowing at a relatively gentle 3 mph and is a half-mile upstream of the water treatment plant’s intakes, it would have taken the about 20 minutes for the first traces of the Crude MCHM to reach the intakes. This makes it clear that any notifications would have to be made promptly and follow-up actions needed to be taken with dispatch to avoid contamination of the treatment facility equipment.
As soon as the water treatment facility became aware of an upstream spill of a chemical that they knew could not be removed by their treatment processes, plans would have been initiated for a shutdown of the water intake. These plans would have included notification to all customers (direct notification and notification via the media) that there would be an impending shortage of treated water. This would have allowed people to start taking measures to ensure that they had drinking water on hand for the time of the shutdown.
Communications According to Law
It currently appears that Freedom Industries made all of the chemical notifications, including spill notification (none), required by law. It appears that current reporting requirements (and follow-up planning requirements) do not address the special case of chemical spills upstream of the water intake of a water treatment facility.
It is readily apparent that the chemical notification and planning processes need to be revised to address this situation. In a future post in the series, I will propose what I think those changes should include.