Morgantown Learning Lessons from Elk River Spill

Jan 21, 2014

Gov. Tomblin is pushing his storage tank regulation bill, which among other things, would require public water systems to submit prevention plan reports to the DEP and DHHR.
Credit Ashton Marra

The City of Morgantown’s water utility says it’s using the unfortunate chemical spill in Charleston as a learning opportunity. It is taking action to prevent problems should a similar situation happen in Morgantown. Of course, if the Governor has his way, the changes may not be optional.

As the West Virginia State legislature continues to wrangle over what would be appropriate new regulations, and as Governor Tomblin’s bill makes its way through the Capitol, Morgantown water utility leaders are carefully watching the situation unfold. Timothy Ball is the general manager of the Morgantown Utility Board. He says the city’s got some policies already on the books that he feels would help if a similar situation were to occur in Morgantown.

"That’s a great advantage that Morgantown has over a lot of other utilities, and that is we do have a secondary water source, and that is immediately available to us if we need to switch over to it," Ball said.

"We have a reservoir called the Cobun Creek reservoir. It’s completely separate from the Mon, and it flows by gravity into our treatment plant."

In 2003, the Department of Health and Human Resources assessed the threats to the Monongahela River’s drinking water supply in a Source Water assessment document. It made recommendations to prevent water contamination. This was updated in 2011, after Marcellus gas wells were drilled near the public water intake.

Ball says these guides helped the utility tremendously, but he feels more can be done—particularly in identifying storage facilities and other places near the water intake that could possible contaminate water.

"Machine shops, chemical storage facilities, anything of that nature. We need to proactively go out and assemble an inventory of materials, both the nature of the material, and the quantity, and gather that information and have it here," said Ball.

"That’s the greatest lesson learned. To a large degree, that information is already assembled, but it’s not already been delivered to the water utilities in most cases."

It’s basically all about communication. Ball says Emergency Planning Committees have the information, and utilities like MUB need to go out and get it. But there’s another key element. Ball says that’s notification.

"If and when a spill occurs, immediate notification is perhaps the most valuable piece of information that the utility can have," Ball said.

"The availability of the second source is only useful if we are aware that there is a spill and we need to take those precautionary measures of shutting down one intake and switching over to the Cobun Creek intake. So immediate notification to the water utility is a key element."

Many are now calling for utilities to follow specific water source assessment plans. One is Monongalia County Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, a Democrat.

"We need to do contingency planning, we need to have alternative sources available, if there’s a need for replacement water, and we also need to do management planning to protect our water resources,"
 she said.

"I think that what happened is that there was no funding for the implementing of these recommendations."

The governor’s proposed legislation would require public water systems to provide reports to state environment officials on several of these points, including contingency plans should a spill from a tank occur, as well as information on possible secondary water sources, and a management plan to protect the water supply from that contamination. Those full reports would be due effective 90 days from passage of the governor’s bill.