January 15, 2014 by Vance Taylor

One of the hardest parts of any utility manager’s job is to convince the officials upstairs to let him/her invest the system’s limited resources on preparedness. It’s the same reason so many young adults avoid purchasing health insurance. It costs a lot of money, and unless there is an immediate need, other priorities take precedence. Thankfully, for more than 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties, the leadership at American Water was forward thinking enough to choose to invest in preparedness before an immediate need arose. Because boy or boy, do they have one now!

Last Thursday, a chemical storage tank owned by Freedom Industries leaked an estimated 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River just one mile upstream from the West Virginia American Water (WVAW) plant. Seven hours later, residents reported smelling a strong odor similar to black licorice coming from their water. Mobilizing quickly, WVAW identified the MCHM and issued a DO NOT USE restriction, meaning people should avoid drinking the water, cooking with it or bathing in it.

As stated by its leadership, WVAW is working with the Office of Emergency Management, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau of Public Health and the National Guard to continue closely monitoring the event. Because chemical levels have dropped significantly, WVAW can begin flushing out the contaminated distribution system. As the process will take several days, FEMA will continue delivering and distributing bottled water to affected residents.

Had American Water not committed its resources to advancing preparedness, the systems it manages, like WVAW, would not be well poised to respond and recover to this type of disaster. As it is however, corporate made the investment, and now the proof is in the pudding.

Something tells me there’s a lesson there.

No doubt, this incident will generate attention on Capitol Hill (in fact, it already has). However, instead of reacting in a knee-jerk fashion by pushing for more regulation, it is my hope that legislators will take the time needed to learn what really happened. Was there negligence on the part of Freedom Industries? Had inspections been occurring on a regular basis? Was Freedom coordinating with WVAW concerning the chemicals it was storing upstream?

Other questions worth considering include asking what Congress can do to assist utilities in their efforts to prepare to respond to and recover from these types of incidents. It would also make sense to explore how the information sharing provisions in the Clean Water Act can be strengthened to ensure water systems know what’s being stored nearby.

Either way, we need to know all of the information before rushing out to “fix” the problem. That said, there is a problem, and it needs to be fixed.