Just days after a chemical contaminated the water supply of three hundred thousand West Virginians, officials in Kanawha County officials started assessing their response to the disaster and found there were things they could do better. One of those things, having a more clear way to locate chemical storage sites quickly during an emergency.
Emergency management officials say that project is in its initial phases, but will never fully be complete.
Kanawha County Emergency Services Deputy Director C.W. Sigman said the county already had access to the necessary information to locate chemical storage sites, just in a very unorganized way.
The types of chemicals and where they are stored, that’s available to every county in Tier II reports filed by companies through the state. But those reports aren’t exactly user friendly.
Matt Thomas, an emergency coordinator for Kanawha County, said they basically come to emergency management officials on a huge Excel spreadsheet and are listed by chemical, not location.
So, if a company has hundreds of chemicals on site, it’s listed hundreds of times. Not very practical.
That’s why he, Sigman and the entire Kanawha County Emergency Management staff have put together a new system for storing this information. A visual system that’s easy to use.
To put it simply, Thomas says it’s like a Google map with all of the storage locations pinpointed to an address and GPS coordinates.
“So, you can just say, well, we know that DuPont is only one place and we know where it’s at,” Thomas said. “Instead of having DuPont listed 500 times, let’s have what chemicals they have listed one time and put them on a map.”
The idea is that this map can be used in two ways.
The first would be in a situation like the initial reports of the Elk River chemical spill. As emergency dispatchers receive reports of maybe an odor complaint, they can pull up the map, pinpoint the caller’s location and see what storage sites are in their area.
Second, those dispatchers can then send emergency responders to an exact location quickly to investigate and can also tell them what kind of specialized equipment they may need if they encounter any leaked chemicals.
Last week, when a white foam was reported on the Elk River, the tool was offered up to aid in the response.
But Sigman said, it really wasn’t needed. He and his team have spent so much time compiling information on the sites surrounding the river that they knew the area from memory and knew exactly where to check.
“We looked at the Public Service District plant, it wasn’t coming from the waste treatment plant. It wasn’t coming from any of our known sources,” he said. “As soon as our first emergency manager got on scene, he pretty much knew what it was. Nothing.”
And it turns out, it was nothing. A naturally occurring foam from the breakdown of organic compounds, according to West Virginia American Water.
But still, the map was there and ready to go, in case it had been a real emergency.
“Our approach right now is knowledge. We want to know where these things are at that way when something happens we can take the appropriate corrective action,” Sigman said.
“We’re not out to get anybody arrested or get anybody in trouble or shutdown any businesses. That’s not our goal. We want everyone to be responsible and we want to know what’s out there.”
Right now, Kanawha County has identified 516 storage locations that Sigman said aren’t necessarily holding pollutants, but 516 locations the county feels they need to be aware of.
The list isn’t done, however, and Thomas said it may never be done.
He and Sigman will be conducting what they call windshield surveys, going out and traveling the county looking for unreported tanks and every year as companies update their Tier II reports, Kanawha County will update its map, preparing them for the possibility of a repeat of the January 9th spill.