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Officials: water quality perceptions blur WV reality

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JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal
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Perception and reality may seem blurry sometimes. And sometimes it comes at a high cost.

Case in point: A July 31 article in the Washington Post, “Did a chemical spill soak West Virginia's whitewater industry?” claimed a reason “visitors are down along the New River Gorge” this year can be traced to a Jan. 9 MCHM chemical spill by Freedom Industries into the Elk River.

The New and the Elk don't share a commonality, though, as the article pointed out. The Elk flows into the Kanawha, some 60 miles away. But whitewater rafting and tourism-based businesses along the New and Gauley rivers — primarily in Fayette County — still suspect the spill didn't help to promote the water-related fun and tourism West Virginia had to offer this season.

“People in other parts of the country, when they hear about spills in West Virginia, they don't know that it doesn't affect the river where we run at all,” said Bobby Bower, executive director of the WV Professional River Outfitters, a partner of the New River Clean Water Alliance. “It's just a perception thing.”

Report statistics

The quality of the New River is important to the citizens of the Mountain State and the businesses that depend on it in the tourism industry. One national report released in June, the Environment America Research and Policy Center's “Wasting our Waterways: Toxic Industrial Pollution and Restoring the Promise of the Clean Water Act,” showed significant releases into the New River near Radford, Virginia, which West Virginia officials recently addressed.

There were many West Virginia streams cited in the report — some more significantly than others. The New was the most prominent one mentioned among Mountain State streams. The report mentions the Upper New River and places its location as North Carolina and Virginia.

It's near the top of its list for toxic releases in the United States.

So West Virginia isn't listed in the report concerning the New River, only its origin in North Carolina and into Virginia.

Is the New River a concern?

On page 38, Table A-3 of the report, a list of the “Top 50 Watersheds for total toxic releases 2012,” the nationwide No. 2 is Upper New River (N.C., Va.) at 7,338,166 pounds.

The source of the pollution in the New River?

On page 46: Table B-1, the report points to the U.S. Army Ammunition Plant, in Radford, Virginia, in the “Facilities and companies releasing toxic chemicals” into Upper New River.”

From there, however, the New River flows approximately 30-40 miles into West Virginia.

But officials say it has no effect within West Virginia's borders.

“There's no evidence that what they're discharging is actually affecting the water in West Virginia,” said George Santucci of the New River Conservancy. “It's not making it that far — it dissipates.

“It's important to get the right information out to folks. That's what it's all about.”

Santucci said there are a lot of efforts going on to ensure that the New River is safe and viable so it can support the whitewater industry.

“From a recreational view, I don't have any concerns about the New River,” he said. “Personally, I'd love to be in the New River right now.”

Santucci said his main concern with the New is a “challenge that most rivers face.”

“In big rain events, there's pollutions — bacteria that leak from cities, flowing downhill, that can be dangerous in high enough concentrations,” he said. “It's rare, but it can happen.

“I appreciate what Environment America does in putting out the report, trying to raise awareness about the Clean Water Act. I applaud them for that, but it paints the New in a way that is not quite fair, I think.

According to Kelley Gillenwater, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the TRI public query does not have the ability to isolate data by a hydrologic unit cod, or HUC, to capture the information for every stream that makes up a watershed.

“Manually identifying streams in North Carolina and Virginia to query the data for the Kanawha River Watershed would be very difficult and therefore we can't specifically comment on questions about that data except to say that,” Gillenwater said. “The DEP takes the health of all West Virginia streams very seriously and closely monitors discharges into those streams.

“When issues are identified, the agency works with dischargers — taking enforcement action, if necessary — to correct the problems.”

Several other officials shared their reasoning for not considering the report cause for alarm. Bower addressed the report, saying a coalition helps the cause in the area.

“We have a great group that we work with, the New River Clean Water Alliance; it is a group of non-profits and state agencies that really monitors what goes on in the New River, from North Carolina all the way through,” he said. “It's showing significant improvement in many areas.

“The New River is beautiful. It's pristine. The nitrites from the ammunition plant puts in (in Virginia), there's no real data that shows up of being in West Virginia. It disperses quickly.”

Bower said he spends plenty of time on the New River.

“I'm an avid angler on the New River,” he said. “From that side, the New River is a super healthy system. The smallmouth population makes it one of the top 10 fisheries in the country.

“There are mussels that are also doing well. It's been crystal clear water in most cases. We've seen huge improvements and we continually work for clean water.”

Bower said he tests the water there on a bi-weekly basis.

“We want to be able to show the improvement and make sure communities are keeping up with infrastructure to release storm water, to keep it good for the future.”

EPA monitoring

The WV DEP does its own tracking of point source pollutants, chemical and biological, through permit limits and self-reported discharge monitoring reports, according to Gillenwater.

“We also have a Water Quality Monitoring Program, through which a list is compiled of waters for which effluent limitations or other controls are not sufficient to meet water quality standards (impaired streams list), which is submitted to the EPA for approval every two years,” she said.

Gillenwater said the current list, called a 303(d) list, is online and open for public comment.

“A stream listed as impaired is monitored very closely by the agency and actions are taken to address the identified problems depending on the specific situation,” Gillenwater added. “These actions include creating TMDLs (total maximum daily load) for the affected streams that identify where the specific types of pollution (sources) come from and allocates maximum discharge limits for those sources.

“In a nutshell, this involves strengthening limits on existing discharge (NPDES) permits or more scrutiny of new permit requests so that when the TMDL is fully implemented, the water quality is returned to where it should be.”

Virginia weighs in

Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Roanoke office, supplied the following statement in response to the report:

“The TRI, produced annually based on information provided to DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is designed only to inform communities about toxic chemicals used in their areas. The TRI does not include information on possible health effects of the chemicals.

“However, chemical releases by the Radford Army Ammunition Plant and other facilities are covered under state and federal permits, which help protect people and the environment by limiting the amount of pollutants entering the water and air. Virginia DEQ also works with industries to encourage them to improve manufacturing process by reducing pollutants. DEQ ensures that state water quality standards are met for a broad range of chemicals.

“The TRI data should not be a cause for alarm, but it is an opportunity for people to understand what toxic chemicals are being used in their communities and to encourage industry to reduce use of those chemicals.”

Water in the headlines

Water quality became more of a statewide concern following the Jan. 9 chemical spill into the Elk River in Kanawha County. The nation's eyes turned to the Kanawha Valley where approximately 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers were under a “Do Not Use” order for several days.

Though the “Wasting our Waterways” 2012 data predates the Freedom Industries spill, it references the incident and West Virginia legislative action in its notes:

“In response to the Freedom Industries spill, the DEP worked with other agencies and legislators on the passage of Senate Bill 373 in March,” it states. “Among the new law's many requirements is one that all aboveground storage tanks that hold 1,320 gallons or more of liquid, are 90 percent or more aboveground and that are considered permanent structures (on site for 60 days or more) be registered with the DEP. Regulatory requirements include measures such as annual tank inspection and certifications, spill prevention response and corrective action plans, emergency public notification plans, secondary containment and leak detection requirements, proof that the tank owner has the financial resources available to pay for corrective actions should a spill occur and signage requirements. Scrutiny of tanks in ‘zones of critical concern,' — near public drinking water sources — will be especially stringent. Tank registration is already underway and tanks must be registered with the DEP by Oct. 1. Agency inspectors visit the Freedom spill site daily to ensure that measures to keep runoff from the site out of the Elk River are being properly followed and will continue to monitor the site closely until it is fully remediated.”

John Rumpler of the Environment America Research and Policy Center was one of the “Wasting Our Waterways” report writers.

“As we point out in the report, the Freedom Industries tragedy is an example of why we need to expand, the types of facilities, the types of toxic chemicals and the circumstances under each facility, that is required to report to the toxic release inventory,” Rumpler said. “Coal washing chemicals were not required to be reported and storage of toxic chemicals as opposed to discharge is often not required to be reported.

“Those are two loopholes that hamper the public's right to know about these toxic dangers.”

Educating the public

The “Wasting Our Waterways” report was co-written by Rumpler, Jeff Inglis and Tony Dutzik of Frontier Group.

The Environment America Research and Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization that is “dedicated to protecting America's air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision makers, and help Americans make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.”

In its acknowledgements, the report states “The findings of this report are based on publicly available data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency based on industry self-reporting through the Toxics Release Inventory program and on additional data produced by the EPA and other government agencies.”

“Concerns from West Virginians are valid,” said Rumpler. “They kayak, fish and otherwise rely on the Upper New River. The only data we have is about how much comes out of the facility. But it could be pointed out, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What about what's downstream from there?' To which I would say, absolutely, it's a concern. We just don't have the data (in W.Va.).

“The states do water quality tests of their rivers to make sure they're safe for fishing and boating and drinking. We rely upon them for it. Officials take a look at the kinds of pollutants from the facilities and do tests. That's very prudent in cases like this.”

Other streams worth a look

“The recreational component of the New River Gorge and the National Park Service unit and the whitewater rafting community makes it a draw for West Virginia. It's a great asset to the state,” said Keith Fisher, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy, West Virginia office, who added that other bodies of water in the Mountain State also merit a close watch.

“It's not just the New, it's multiple streams and rivers across West Virginia,” he said. “You have multiple sources feeding into them, whether it's a point source from an industrial plant, a point source from energy development or other kinds of development, or residential neighborhoods, all streams are suffering a death by a thousand cuts. It's an accumulation of all of these.

“That's the biggest challenge in managing a watershed. You have a big area, especially with a river like the New, that goes across multiple states and multiple jurisdictions, multiple government regulations ... how then do you try to address all of those issues that are impacting that waterway?”