Chemical spills are among the list of worst nightmares for drinking water utilities. It’s hard to think of an event that can be more disruptive to the process of treating and delivering clean water than to have large amounts of unknown industrial substances added without warning upstream.
For a demonstration of just how devastating a chemical spill can be, look no further than 2014’s case in West Virginia’s Elk River. Up to 5,000 gallons of coal processing chemicals leaked from a storage tank into the river and left 300,000 residents with unsafe tap water for days. It ultimately yielded a $151 million settlement between locals and the companies responsible for the leak.
Though the incident opened eyes to the potential for chemical spills, the events are far from impossible. To remain vigilant, drinking water systems should be prepared for the potential of chemical spills. That’s what the Halifax County Service Authority (HCSA) has done in developing its Spill Response and Prevention Plan (SRPP), which could hopefully serve as a model for others.
“The SRPP … develops an emergency response plan for responding to surface water contamination,” said Mark Estes, executive director of HCSA, the water and wastewater service provider for the county in Southern Virginia. “The plan’s focus is identifying hazards related to the watershed’s major highways and secondary roads which act as major transportation corridors for chemical transportation; determining the types and volumes of chemicals that are most likely to be involved in a spill in the watershed; and determining mitigation and response for spill events that discharge into HCSA’s water source.”
The SRPP is part of HCSA’s broader Source Water Protection Program (SWPP), which identified critical water basin and groundwater areas, as well as point and non-point sources of discharge. As HCSA assessed its critical points of source water, it became concerned about transient contaminants, such as industrial chemicals.
The SRPP was developed to firstly address the need for awareness of the issue.
“Prevention can only be achieved through education and awareness,” Estes said. “We cannot control the hazardous chemicals that are transported through the basin areas, but we can make the companies and their staffs aware of the potential liabilities and proximity to our source water basin.”
By letting the potential polluters know that quick notification of spills is a critical part of managing them, HCSA hopes to at least temper catastrophic accidents.
“Reaction time is critical for any utility and early detection is of vital importance,” Estes said. “The earlier the notification, the greater chance of preventing a contaminant from entering our treatment facilities.”
Beyond rapid notification, the other critical part of the SRPP is to ensure that all key personnel are kept in the loop.
“One of the key elements to a successful spill preparedness plan is a response network in which all stakeholders are contacted and involved,” Estes said. “We have seen cases where accidental spills have entered waterways where prompt and efficient notification was not given to the public water supplies in a timely manner and in many instances after the contaminated sludge has passed the utility’s water intake. This plan would help identify and create a network of responders that allowed a simple and systematic notification of all stakeholders, allowing each stakeholder to respond and adjust as necessary to prevent and reduce exposure to public water supplies.”
The plan was developed using a $50,000 grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Service and it employed a consulting engineer. For those other utilities that are interested in developing a similar plan, Estes recommends that collaboration will go a long way.
“Begin discussions with the stakeholder groups in your area and try to understand their roles in both response and as supportive agencies,” he said. “Source water quality affects many industries as well as recreation and wildlife habitat. The process was perhaps as important as the finished plan. Take full advantage of the stakeholder process and do not be afraid to expand the margins of awareness and proactive support roles of your local, state, and federal agencies.”
Image credit: "Chemical Spill," Patrice Lehocky © 2008, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/