News Feature | August 10, 2017

Despite Source Water, One West Virginia Plant Stands As A Model

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

A utility in West Virginia is setting the standard for how to provide clean tap water despite relying on an extremely polluted waterway.

“Old tires, damaged toys, algae, oil drums, sticks” are just a few signs of pollution in the Monongahela River in West Virginia, according to the Associated Press.

That’s just a dozen miles upstream of a water intake for 100,000 people, the report said. The waterway is on the state’s list of impaired rivers.

Nevertheless, “the filth is no match for the Robert B. Creel Water Treatment Facility in Morgantown,” according to the AP.

The publicly owned plant "exceeds" state and federal standards, the report said. It also won the American Water Works Award for best-tasting water in West Virginia last year, the report said.

What’s the secret?

“It's not cheap. The raw water from the Monongahela is treated in a system that was upgraded four years ago with a $40 million municipal bond. The project increased production capacity in Morgantown, the home of West Virginia University and one of the few areas in the state that's been growing and water demand is projected to keep rising,” the report said.

The system can ensure safety more effectively than other plants, according to the report. That’s a benefit when unexpected challenges strike.

The backdrop is that water safety has become a high-profile issue in West Virginia in recent years. January “marked the third anniversary of the Elk River chemical spill that left more than 300,000 West Virginians without usable drinking water for more than a week. The leak originated at Freedom Industries just outside of Charleston,” which is about 150 miles away from Morgantown, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported.

Hypothetically, Morgantown’s plant would have been able to mitigate certain consequences of spill.

“Even if a spill like that happened near Morgantown, its elite system wouldn't have been able to filter out the chemical that spilled into the Elk River and fouled Charleston's drinking water. But it does have sensors upstream that may have detected that something was amiss when the chemical leak started and could've closed its intake earlier, perhaps preventing people from losing their drinking water for days,” the report said.

The spill prompted West Virginia lawmakers to evaluate water safety issues, mandating that utilities publish source water protection plans.

“The Morgantown board in December 2015 was the first system in West Virginia to publish its source water protection plan, required by state law after the Charleston spill,” the AP reported.

Rob Renner, of the Water Research Foundation in Denver, explained the benefits of the Morgantown system.

"From a health standpoint, Morgantown is going to be way better off than most utilities," he said, per the report. "These membranes take more of the risk out."

Facility operators say the plant is ready in case of emergency.

“It’s important to note that Morgantown Utility Board’s (MUB’s) water treatment plant uses two independent sources of supply the Monongahela River and Cobun Creek Reservoir. MUB also maintains more than 10 million gallons of treated water in storage in numerous tanks across its system. This means that in an emergency, MUB can utilize water from one source exclusively and inform the public of the situation,” according to the utility.

Image credit: "Morgantown, West Virginia," J. Stephen Conn © 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/