Local officials monitoring contaminated water

By Wayne Allen

January 10, 2014

Wayne Allen

PDT Staff Writer

Officials with the Scioto County Emergency Management Agency and Portsmouth Water Works, along with other state and regional officials, are monitoring the situation with contaminated water in West Virginia.

“It appears that any kind of effect on us (by the contaminated water) will be negated by the dilution, before its gets to the Ohio River,” said Kim Carver, director of the Scioto County Emergency Management Agency. “The West Virginia Emergency Operation Center is working with the Ohio Emergency Operation Center in exchanging information and keeping them updated. What the environmental folks are saying at both state levels is that it will be diluted before it gets here.”

Carver said multiple agencies are keeping an eye on the situation.

“If anything would potentially impact our area notifications would be sent out,” Carver said.

When asked of the likelihood of some of the contaminated water reaching the areas water supply, Carver said, “the emergency management agencies are coordinating at the state level on public information. What they are saying at this point is that it will not have an impact on the Ohio River drinking water intakes.”

Sam Sutherland, Director of Public Utilities for the city of Portsmouth is also keeping a close eye on the situation.

“As of right now, we don’t know any concentration numbers yet. They are currently trying to get some numbers on how strong the concentration is in the Kanawha River,” Sutherland said. “The river speed and models of what we’re seeing indicate that if it shows up and I’m not saying it will or it will not. We would not see it until Monday night at about 9 p.m.”

Sutherland said the likelihood of this area seeing any kind of effects from the contaminated water would depend on a number of things.

“This is the kind of thing you have to base your decisions on the data they get up-stream. According to models, when we think it’s close we’re going to really start watching. If it’s there we will take appropriate actions, try to treat through it or shutdown,” Sutherland said. “It may be so diluted that we may not notice it. You’re looking at about 83 miles of river between here and where it occurred.”

West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the extent of the danger remained unclear.

The federal government joined the state early Friday in declaring a disaster, and the West Virginia National Guard planned to distribute bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the nine affected counties. In requesting the federal declaration, which makes federal resources available to the state, state officials said about 300,000 people were affected.

Federal authorities are also launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill and what caused it, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a news release Friday.

Shortly after the Thursday spill from Freedom Industries hit the river and a nearby treatment plant, a licorice-like smell enveloped parts of the city, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an order to customers of West Virginia American Water: Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.

The chemical, a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process, leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and overran a containment area. Freedom, a manufacturer of chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries, said in a news release Friday that the company is working to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. President Gary Southern also said the company still does not know how much of the chemical spilled from its operation into the river.

Officials say the orders were issued as a precaution, as they were still not sure exactly what hazard the spill posed to residents. It also was not immediately clear exactly how much of the chemical spilled into the river and at what concentration.

The tank that leaked holds at least 40,000 gallons, said Tom Aluise, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. “We’re confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped,” he said. “A certain amount of that got into the river. Some of that was contained.”

Agency officials do not know how long the chemical had been leaking, Aluise said in a telephone interview. There was a breach in a concrete wall that served as a containment area to prevent spills from leaving the storage site, he said.

“Our understanding is it’s not an especially toxic material. It’s not dangerous necessarily to be around,” he said.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed — and could be so if inhaled — and causes eye and skin irritation. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddened skin, itching and rashes, according to a news release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to use water only for flushing toilets — weren’t waiting for outside help. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was planning to deliver more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland, but the first shipments were not expected to arrive until Friday night.

Once word got out about the governor’s declaration Thursday, customers stripped store shelves in many areas of items such as bottled water, paper cups and bowls. As many as 50 customers had lined up to buy water at a convenience store near the state Capitol in Charleston.

Wayne Allen may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 228, or tallen@civitasmedia.com. For breaking news, follow Wayne on Twitter @WayneallenPDT. The Associated Press contributed to this story.