From The Editor | December 19, 2016

An 11-Step Plan To Prepare For Upstream Chemical Spills

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online

An 11-Step Plan To Prepare For Upstream Chemical Spills

In 2014, a dangerous chemical used to process coal escaped from its tank at a Freedom Industries facility and seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River. The chemical, MCHM, reached the intake for West Virginia American Water’s treatment and distribution center and left up to 300,000 local residents without potable water for days.

That chemical spill has inspired a new project from the Water Research Foundation (WRF) that hopes to provide water systems with a concise way of avoiding, or an effective way of handling, such events. The project, “A Methodology for Locating and Managing Dynamic Potential Source Water Contaminant Data,” can be used to locate, quality control, and maintain chemical storage sites upstream from drinking water intakes.

“While utilities were already interested in conducting source water assessments, the MCHM spill in West Virginia highlighted the need for water utilities to know potential sources of contamination in the watersheds,” said Alice Fulmer, WRF’s senior research manager for the project. “Information such as the location, chemical contents, quantity, and physical, chemical, and toxicological properties of potential contaminants stored in aboveground storage tanks is critical for detecting a spilled chemical, locating its source, addressing source cleanup, making operational decisions, and crafting communications.”  

The data that this methodology enables water systems to collect won’t just come in handy during a catastrophe like what happened in the Elk River. It can be used beforehand, to prepare, as well.

“These same types of information can be used before a spill to prioritize potential sources of contamination upstream of intakes and develop a strategic workforce plan action to minimize risks and identify critical data gaps,” said Fulmer.

The two-year, $300,000-plus project began with workshops among partners West Virginia American Water, Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the American Water Works Association, and Aqua America. They identified the priority sites within the zones of concern upstream of drinking water intakes, identified the available data sets for five pilot sites, and detailed what a final methodology would need to include.

“The data collection methodology was developed simultaneously with development of an information system for project pilot sites,” said Fulmer. “Feedback and interactions with pilot site facility managers and other members of the drinking water community generated new leads about organizations with useful datasets and strategies to obtain more datasets.”

Ultimately, this work produced 11 steps that drinking water systems could use to deal with upstream chemical storage sites:

1.       Delineate the zone of concern.

2.       Collect base spatial and imagery data.

3.       Mine existing data sources for locations of potential sources of contamination.

4.       Identify chemical locations and quantities.

5.       Analyze imagery to identify potential sources of contamination.

6.       Contact partners and facility owners or managers directly.

7.       Research contaminant properties.

8.       Generate summary reports.

9.       Identify data gaps and decide whether and how to fill them.

10.   Prioritize potential sources of contamination.

11.   Work with high priority facility managers and property owners to reduce risks, facilitate communications, and plan responses.

The full report contains more details on how to accomplish each step, as well as useful datasets to utilize and recommendations for using the methodology as part of a larger source water protection program.

“Most water systems would benefit from doing source water assessments using this type of methodology,” Fulmer said.

Image credit: "Chemical Spill," Patrice Lehocky © 2008, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: