Water Pressure: WV, N.C. Vary in responses to river contaminatio - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Water Pressure: WV, N.C. Vary in responses to river contamination

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ELBERT MOSLEY / WOWK-TV. The West Virginia DEP issued two violations to Freedom Industries in relation to the June 12 and 13 overflows of a trench after the region experienced heavy rains. ELBERT MOSLEY / WOWK-TV. The West Virginia DEP issued two violations to Freedom Industries in relation to the June 12 and 13 overflows of a trench after the region experienced heavy rains.
In early February, a coal slurry spill in eastern Kanawha County’s Fields Creek sent officials and residents into a familiar response and panic. In early February, a coal slurry spill in eastern Kanawha County’s Fields Creek sent officials and residents into a familiar response and panic.

Another chemical spill.

This phrase is becoming familiar for officials with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and residents living in the Kanawha Valley.

For two straight days in June, Freedom Industries failed to prevent a stormwater overflow at the site responsible for the days-long contamination of the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians Jan. 9.

Back in January, the chemicals MCHM and PPH, both used in cleaning coal, leaked from an above-ground storage tank facility and into the Elk River.

The public trust is still shaky when it comes to water quality, but the June 12 and 13 overflows of a trench built to contain runoff water while the site and tanks are being destroyed, showed non-detectable levels of MCHM in the drinking water supply, according to West Virginia American Water — the company whose water was contaminated after the Jan. 9 leak. WVAW is located about a mile and a half downstream of Freedom Industries.

DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman’s patience appeared to be wearing thin as he called the June overflows “outrageous” and “unacceptable” in a news release.

Huffman said Freedom Industries and its environmental consultant should have a system in place to handle heavy rain, which the area received June 12 and 13. DEP said June 13 it received a plan to prevent the overflow at Freedom by outlining measures to contain the spill site properly from the company’s court-appointed restructuring officer.

According to the Associated Press, Freedom Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch says the company is transitioning past Civil and Environmental Consultants. Welch said the change could take several weeks, and Huffman said June 17 he was urging Freedom to replace the Pittsburgh contractor, responsible for the overflows at the Freedom site the second weekend in June.

Freedom filed for bankruptcy shortly after its Jan. 9 spill, and creditors affected by the spill have been given until Aug. 1 to file their claims. Huffman said it’s important for the public to understand one major point about Freedom Industries.

“The Freedom that was in charge the day of the leak is not in charge anymore,” Huffman said. “The guy in charge of every decision made by Freedom (now) was appointed by the bankruptcy court.”

The contractor’s ability to do the work for the FI site came into question after the overflows occurred, Huffman said. Huffman was frustrated with the way the situation was handled, and officials have found themselves once again examining the trust that has been put into those given the task of taking control over the spill site.

The DEP also issued two immediate violations to FI in relation to the overflow events.

One of the notices of violations was for allowing such a discharge to happen from an unpermitted outlet. The other was for Freedom’s failure to comply with the terms and conditions of a prior order to implement an approved sump management plan.

The overflow, according to DEP, occurred as a result of a pump failure and, potentially, human error for how the device was set.

2 States, 2 Spills

The Tar Heel State found itself in a situation similar to the Mountain State’s.

About one month after the chemical spill in West Virginia, North Carolina experienced a coal ash spill into the Dan River. A pond storing the sludge breached and the toxic substance got into the water.

The Duke Energy spill tested North Carolina state officials on how to respond to an environmental disaster, and the results seem to be different from the Mountain State’s standing.

Susan Massengale, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said as soon as officials found out about the spill they had staff go test the water.

“We had notification of downstream water supplies,” Massengale said. “We had a map of the facility.

“Part of (the state’s) regulatory scheme means we had our hands on a lot of information quickly.”

Massengale, however, noted the vast differences between the chemical spill of crude MCHM and the coal ash spill experienced in her state.

North Carolina is no stranger to coal production, and the effects it can have on the environment should something go wrong. The state has about 14 coal-fired power plants and 33 ponds similar to the one that breached, causing the spill into the Dan River.

“We’ve never had one breach into the river, that was our first experience with that,” she added. “The fact is we did have maps and because they’re under permit with us (there was) no mystery about chemicals we needed to be looking for — they were a known factor.”

Another key difference between the two disasters was the cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and Duke Energy, a large enough company to take the loss.

But, this begs the question, could West Virginia have been better prepared and have more regulations in place?

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, thinks so. Unger said weeks and months after the spill on several occasions that the state would not be judged for the situation but how it was handled after the fact.

Unger sponsored Senate Bill 373 which regulates above-ground storage tanks the same way other tanks storing chemicals in West Virginia are regulated. More than that, the bill passed by the Legislature in the last regular session also attempts to protect the state’s waterways and supply, including protecting the drinking water supply from chemicals and other contaminants.

Response to Spills

North Carolina lawmakers acted much like West Virginia’s did after the chemical spill and introduced a measure that attempts to address the threat of coal ash.

Like West Virginia, the Legislature in North Carolina introduced the legislation as its first bill going into a regular session. The bill introduced in the Legislature there would set a 15-year timetable for “dewatering” and closing all unlined coal ash ponds in the state, while eliminating the practice of wet ash disposal.

Lawmakers in the state are currently debating what to do with Duke Energy’s 33 ash dumps at the 14 power plants, located along rivers and lakes that some residents rely on for drinking.

Officials said Duke’s unlined waste pits contain more than 100 million tons of coal ash and are, currently, contaminating the groundwater.

The North Carolina Senate introduced legislation that would give the state “the strictest regulations on coal ash in the country and make it the first state to force the closure of all coal ash ponds.”

In a news release to North Carolina media outlets, Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said the bill addresses environmental, regulator and consumer protection concerns caused by the coal ash pond spill.

“This is a long-standing problem that started three quarters of a century ago, and I’m pleased to be a part of the first General Assembly to take it seriously,” Apodaca said.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he was directly impacted by the spill.

“As a resident of Eden, I have personally experienced the impact and understand the gravity of the recent coal ash spill,” said Berger. “I am pleased the Senate has developed the most aggressive approach to eliminating coal ash in the entire country to protect consumers and mitigate environmental problems.”

The plan would require the Dan River, Asheville, Riverbend and Sutton coal ash ponds to be excavated and closed as soon as possible but no later than 2019.

All remaining ponds would be classified into three risk categories, much like West Virginia came up with the “zones of critical concern” in its 2014 bill, meaning if an above-ground storage tank facility was within a certain distance of a public water intake it would warrant extra inspections and regulations.

The bill the North Carolina Senate introduced would also mandate all future coal ash disposal to be managed in new or existing landfills, with extensive groundwater monitoring.

The bill would protect North Carolina consumers and ban utility companies from recovering costs for the damage caused by coal ash spills, including associated civil or criminal fines.

The North Carolina Legislature’s regular session ends at the beginning of July.

Long-Term Health Impacts

Local and federal officials told West Virginians from the get-go little was known about the chemical that spilled into the Elk River, but others are taking the lead on letting the country know there needs to be more data about MCHM and PPH.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said whenever health impacts of a chemical or toxin are in question there are three things officials are concerned with — how the population was exposed, in what manner and what dosage.

“Those are probably the three important parts to consider for both long-term and short-term health impacts,” Gupta said.

As far as a health study done by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, Gupta said the department discovered one out of four people used the water during Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “Do Not Use” order, one out of every three households suffered an illness related to the spill and only one-fourth of the people who felt ill actually sought medical treatment.

The health study also is currently the largest body of research available concerning the health impacts of crude MCHM.

Gupta said initial data from West Virginia American Water collected at the end of March — about two and a half months after the spill — showed there was a continued presence of the chemical in low concentrations even then, resulting in longer exposure to the chemical than initially thought.

“We feel it is vital we have a system put in that tracks the long-term health monitoring of the 300,000 people impacted from the spill,” Gupta said. “And because it is (now) part of state law (in response to the spill) we feel strongly our federal agencies should, at this time, play the important role of helping us conduct the long-term medical monitoring as would occur anywhere else in the United States if this impact was to happen.”

DEP Continues Efforts

Huffman said June 17 West Virginia is continuing to respond to the January water crisis.

However, the state is also prepared for other mishaps that could come its way regarding coal and coal preparation — which is what MCHM is used in.

Huffman said there are plans in place in West Virginia to monitor coal ash. He said after a 2008 Tennessee spill that knocked over houses and left people’s yards with the toxic sludge, the Mountain State reassessed its dams where coal ash is being stored.

“When Tennessee’s broke we went out and did a comprehensive review of our program, to ensure structural integrity,” Huffman said. “We have done a number of reviews on our coal ash impoundments.”

Huffman said officials are looking to have a better understanding of the chemicals used in coal preparation, including MCHM and PPH.

“How we might test and identify things not otherwise regulated, but in the coal preparation process, that might be finding (its) way into the river,” he explained.

Although Huffman said state officials have set plans in place, like (SB 373) the storage tank bill, there isn’t going to be research readily available. He said while DEP would do its part in regulating and inspecting the chemicals, that doesn’t mean the department will know everything about the chemicals that could have the potential to spill into the drinking water supply yet again.