WEIRTON - The Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River on Jan. 9 in Charleston contaminated the drinking supply of 300,000 West Virginians, and the subsequent effects on their health may not be fully understood for years to come.
Water supply networks across the state and the country have come under scrutiny as a result, and a new state law was passed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last week requiring regulation of above-ground chemical storage tanks and a study of the long-term health effects of the spill. The "spill bill" also called for all water utilities to have a source water protection plan, something that the Weirton Area Water Board has had in place for years.
"We do have backup water sources," Utilities Director A.D. "Butch" Mastrantoni said. "We have emergency plans that account for spills. We have an early warning system, spill notifications and sensor devices placed upstream of us at specific mile markers all the way to the inception of the Ohio River and beyond."
BACKUP PLAN — Sam K. Stoneking Jr., assistant utilities director, left, and Chuck Tenaglio, chief operator at the Weirton Water Treatment Plant, said that in the event of a power outage, a generator is in place to ensure that water keeps flowing to city residents. The generator can be activated within 20 minutes and runs on diesel fuel. — Shae Dalrymple
He was referring specifically to Weirton's membership in the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, which operates a series of spill detection stations up and down the river, from beginning to end. According to Scott Clark, operator, ORSANCO's equipment at Weirton's plant takes six samples from the river to test per day, the same as the 14 other member stations situated elsewhere on the river.
"If there's any spill, we are able to track that spill from station to station," Mastrantoni said.
ORSANCO's website outlines its mission to abate pollution and improve and monitor water quality in the Ohio River Basin. The Cincinnati-based commission represents the federal government and eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Some of the group's responsibilities include performing biological assessments and monitoring the chemical and physical properties of the waterways.
"We are luckier and better situated than Charleston was," Mastrantoni said. "One thing that we have that they didn't have in Charleston is a secondary source- our well source. We continue to keep the well vibrant. In the event of spill we would simply shut the water down from the river intake and switch to well water."
Weirton blends about 40 percent well water with about 60 percent river water or surface water on a regular basis, which means that if a spill or contamination occurred in the river, operators could shut down the river intake and rely on well water, at least temporarily.
"Using the well as a source and good common sense and conservative use of water, the city could probably survive about four to six days on well water alone. We just did a disinfection byproducts project which established an air stripper on our well source so we can get the contaminants out and make that well water pristine, as it is now," Mastrantoni explained. "We are using it now and blending it now, and we have always had a well source in Weirton."
Until the late 1980s, the city relied solely on the well source.
The switch from river to well can be made in one minute or less from an electronic central control station at the plant. Like all equipment there, the mechanisms involved in changing the water intake are exercised regularly, according to Chuck Tenaglio, chief operator at the Weirton Area Water Treatment Plant.
"We try to exercise each of these about once a month," Tenaglio said of the river intake pumps. "We exercise everything down here to make sure that it's in working order. And if anything needs repaired, if we can't fix it, then we send it to a shop that can repair it. We keep up on maintaining all of the equipment with oil changes, lube and everything. Every single piece of equipment has at least one duplicate, so in case something breaks, we can always stay up and running."
The plant also has a diesel-fueled generator at its disposal, so the secure control station, along with other equipment necessary to keep the water flowing, can continue to function despite any potential power outages.
"Of course anything can happen that could extend a long-term outage. But in the case of a localized contamination issue in the Ohio River north or upstream of the water treatment plant, since we are part of the ORSANCO network, we are advised of those spills. But even if we don't get advised, we do have a set of procedures, that Chuck has put in place, that rely on our operators' senses of smell, sight, taste and common sense," Mastrantoni said.
He highlighted the importance of operators trusting their senses rather than relying on technology completely. He pointed out that if operators at the West Virginia American Water Co. in Charleston had reported the licorice smell when they initially noticed it, the problem would have been discovered sooner.
Mastrantoni traveled to Wheeling last month for a regional coalition meeting on hospital disaster preparedness organized by representatives from Weirton Medical Center, Wheeling Hospital, East Ohio Regional Hospital and OVMC. The goal of the meeting was to analyze the emergency response to the spill in Charleston and discuss ways of avoiding such an accident here as well as how to handle the response if it did occur.
"It was a very good meeting. We learned some of the practices and procedures of those other hospitals, which gave us some insight," he said. "We discussed how Weirton had actually gone through a similar scenario when as a result of a mechanical failure we had an extended outage, not a contamination issue. We contacted Dean's Water Service Inc. based in Washington, Pa., when we had that outage. He was able to get water down here, and we set up distribution points. During the discussion, we realized everyone was referring to Dean's, Al's or one other water supplier. If we were to experience a regional contamination, we would all be dependent on three distributors who only have a certain number of trucks. There may be some deficiency there. We discussed how we might be able to avoid competing with our neighboring communities for access to water distributors. We're probably going to meet again in the summer to discuss that issue further with hospital entities so we can firm up that section of our emergency response plan."
The January spill has shed light on potentially weak areas of the emergency response plan, which is actively being improved, according to officials. Weirton Water Treatment Plant operators and Weirton Area Water Board members are confident the city's utilities are prepared to withstand a major contamination similar to the disaster caused by Freedom Industries.
Mastrantoni, Tenaglio and Stoneking welcome any concerned residents to contact them to schedule a tour of the water treatment facility.
"We're not just standing still and letting it go. We're constantly putting new technology into effect that a lot of places don't," Stoneking said.
"It's a never-ending process," Tenaglio agreed.