Water company testimony highlights lack of options during Elk River spill
West Virginia American Water officials have made public a new and somewhat more detailed defense of the company’s decision not to shut down its drinking water intake pumps immediately following the Freedom Industries chemical spill in January.
Water company officials included a 13-page report on the matter as part of their opening round of prepared testimony, filed with the state Public Service Commission on Wednesday. Under pressure from numerous citizen complaints, the PSC is investigating how West Virginia American responded to the spill of MCHM that contaminated drinking water supplies across the region.
The new West Virginia American testimony also makes clear a central problem the region faced when the spill occurred: Drinking water for 300,000 residents in Charleston and the surrounding counties comes from one source, and the water company has for 40 years had no alternatives to draw on during such emergencies.
“The Elk River is the sole source of raw water to the plant, and the company did not have any workable options to consider on an emergency basis for temporary or permanent alternative sources of raw water following the Freedom Industries spill,” water company engineering manager Brett Morgan said in his testimony to the PSC.
Morgan was one of three West Virginia American officials whose prepared testimony was submitted Wednesday during the first round of testimony in the PSC’s spill investigation. In PSC cases, parties file prepared testimony first, and then lawyers cross-examine the other side’s witness during a formal hearing, scheduled in the spill investigation for Oct. 7-9.
Commissioners had ordered West Virginia American to file prepared testimony to address a number of issues about the spill, including a “detailed description” of who was involved in and who made the decision not to close the Elk River plant intake, and a “description of the alternatives for water treatment or alternative or supplemental sources of treated or finished water that were considered by [the water company] after it became aware of the MCHM spill.”
Regarding alternative water supplies, Morgan told the PSC that the distribution systems served by the Elk River plant and West Virginia American’s Huntington water treatment facility “are interconnected to support service in eastern Cabell and Lincoln counties.” But, Morgan said, “Even if we had unlimited production capacity in Huntington (which we do not), the Huntington distribution system is not capable of transporting a significant amount of water to the Kanawha Valley system.
“We have a limited number of interconnections that allow the company to help other, smaller utilities, to meet their needs,” Morgan said. “None of the smaller utility production facilities, alone or in the aggregate, could have begun to replace the [Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant] in terms of treatment capacity, nor could the transmission and distribution pipelines that connect these systems hydraulically support the flow of water into (as opposed to from) the Kanawha Valley system,” Morgan told the commission.
On the issue of why West Virginia American didn’t close its Elk River intake system, West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre has said the issue is the question he has “been most frequently asked” in the months since the chemical spill that affected 300,000 residents in Charleston and surrounding counties.
In previous interviews and public appearances, McIntyre has said closing the Elk River treatment plant would have quickly depleted water needed for firefighting and sanitation. Getting the entire regional water treatment and distribution system back up and running could have taken more than a month, McIntyre has said.
The water company’s new testimony to the PSC describes the decision not to close the plant as one that was “based on the company’s familiarity and experience with the complexities of the Kanawha Valley system.” West Virginia American says that a “consensus was reached” with the state Bureau for Public Health, which regulates drinking water providers, that shutting the plant “would have deprived the public” of water for sanitation and firefighting “for a considerable period of time.”
“We had no way, at that time, to determine or estimate the duration of the chemical spill or resulting plume that would affect the water treatment plant,” testified Billie J. Suder, manager of water quality and environmental compliance for West Virginia American. “Shutting down the plant, losing the system, then re-starting it, would have been a prolonged, difficult process, keeping customers out of water for any use for a substantially longer period of time than the actual period that the ‘do not use’ order was in place.”
In his prepared testimony to the PSC, West Virginia American’s Morgan says that he was questioned by U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators about the decision not to shut down the water plant.
At the board’s request, Morgan prepared a report to “more specifically quantify” how long it would take to restart the water system and “to illustrate the complexities in restoring the system,” said water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan.
Morgan’s report, dated Feb. 25, says that on the day of the chemical spill, the Elk River plant was providing customers with more than 42 million gallons per day of treated water. That compares to the plant’s average of about 28 million gallons per day and its capacity of 50 million gallons per day, according to Morgan’s testimony.
The water company’s Kanawha Valley system is large and complex, with 1,900 miles of distribution lines and more than 100 storage tanks. In all, the system’s storage capacity is 38.5 million gallons, according to Morgan’s report. But on the afternoon of Jan. 9, the system had only about 17 million gallons stored, the report said.
“The system was not operating normally due to record cold temperatures earlier in the week,” Morgan said in his report. “The system was stressed from leaks and abnormal customer usage. This abnormal usage is due to allowing water to run in the customer’s house to keep pipes from freezing. This phenomenon is frequently seen in winter and WVAW actually encourages customers to take this precaution.”
On the day of the spill, the downtown Charleston area -- including hospitals, government buildings and major businesses -- had less than 6 million gallons of water stored, Morgan said. If the system had been shut down, that area would have run out of water in a little more than three hours, the report said. Some tanks in that area were already empty that day, meaning some customers would have lost water service “almost immediately,” the report said.
Morgan’s report says that West Virginia American would not have been able to begin turning the system back on until at least 10 a.m. on Jan. 12, when MCHM testing at the plant intake showed non-detect results.
The report mentions numerous potential problems in restarting the water distribution system: safely restarting pumps that would be operating with no discharge pressure, which can overheat motors; clearing air from distribution pipes, probably by systematically opening hydrants; and likely having to repair many pipes that could have broken while empty during cold temperatures.
“Developing a timeline to perform the above functions and restore the entire [Kanawha Valley System] is a difficult task,” Morgan said in his report. “A major difficulty is that this feat has never been attempted, according to the most experienced personnel within WVAW. I know it has never been done during my 28-year career.”
Morgan said that, if the company were able to repressurize 42 miles of pipe per day, working seven days a week, it would take 45 days to complete that part of the task. If eight booster stations per day could be brought back on line, completing work at all 120 booster stations would take 15 days, Morgan said in his report.
“Since most of the above work could be accomplished concurrently, a minimum 45-day schedule to complete would be estimated,” the report said. “This is 45 actual work days and is very optimistic.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.