When West Virginia American Water built its Kanawha Valley drinking water plant 45 years ago, the company dropped a plan that would have kept an existing intake near Coonskin Park, upstream from an industrial facility that would later become Freedom Industries, according to state records and new federal court filings.
West Virginia American got approval from what was then known as the West Virginia Department of Health for a single river intake at the new treatment plant site on Aug. 15, 1969, just a month after the state Public Service Commission issued an order that appears to have contemplated two Elk River intakes — the then-existing Coonskin intake and a new intake at the treatment plant.
The final plans for the treatment facility excluded a third intake. West Virginia American had proposed building an intake on the Kanawha River upstream from Belle, but the PSC rejected that idea after state health officials ruled that the Kanawha’s water was not “suitable” for drinking, according to state records from the PSC and the health department.
Details of long-ago proposals and decisions about the water treatment plant have been bubbling to the surface over the past few months from lawsuits over the Jan. 9 chemical leak at Freedom and a PSC investigation of West Virginia American’s response to that leak, which contaminated the Elk River and, subsequently, the drinking water supplies for 300,000 residents in Charleston and the counties surrounding Kanawha County. The treatment plant is located along the Elk and about 1.5 miles downstream from the Freedom Industries site.
One piece of the history that had been missing from the available public record — design plans that show West Virginia American relocating its intake to the treatment plant — turned up this week in the water company’s defense against one of the leak-related lawsuits. The new court filing, though, does not explain why West Virginia American decided to close the Coonskin intake in favor of only one intake, located at the plant, and water company officials would not elaborate Friday on the legal filing.
“The plant’s revised design plan with a new, single intake on the Elk at the new plant site was approved by the WV Department of Health, and the plant was constructed in accordance with that design,” water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said in an email. “The Department of Health issued a separate, specific Certificate of Approval for the raw water intake located on the Elk River at the proposed treatment plant site.
“Unfortunately, we can’t provide any additional details at this time, other than what is available in public records.”
West Virginia American built its Elk River treatment and distribution plant to consolidate existing water systems in Belle, Charleston and Nitro. Original cost estimates put the price tag at about $34 million.
Initially, the water company proposed to close down its existing Charleston treatment plant, located on Slack Street, but to keep its existing raw water intake, which was located upstream, near Coonskin. Water from the Coonskin intake would be pumped to the new plant.
West Virginia American also proposed to put an intake near Chelyan, to draw additional water from the Kanawha River.
“After completion of the water supply project, the water system will have two sources of water, the Elk River and the Kanawha River,” the water company said in its original application to the PSC, filed on Jan. 17, 1969. “Water from the Elk River will be taken at the water company’s present intake at Coonskin Shoals, a point approximately 4.2 miles upstream from the mouth of the river.
“Water from the Kanawha River will be taken at the proposed new intake located in Chelyan,” the company said. “This intake is approximately 15 miles upstream from downtown Charleston. The amount of water taken from each source will be adjusted to obtain the best quality water and to obtain the most economical treatment plant operation.”
However, on March 27, 1969 — just four days before the PSC was scheduled to hold hearings on the West Virginia American plan — the state Department of Health rejected the use of the Kanawha intake for a public drinking water system.
In a handrwritten “permit record” approving the construction of a new treatment plant, the health department said, “This approval does not involve the Kanawha River intake since available information shows the Elk River to be a more suitable source from both bacterial and chemical aspects.”
The PSC adopted this health department finding and also rejected the Kanawha intake, saying that health officials had “excluded the Kanawha River intake at Chelyan because it was described as an unsatisfactory water supply source.”
In its 15-page ruling, the PSC cautioned that “a minor risk would be involved in using the Elk River as the sole source supply for the new system because of the objectionable taste and other quality degradations that might be encountered during the periods of low flow in the Elk River which would result in the taking of backwaters of the Kanawha River.”
Water company officials had proposed the Kanawha intake in the first place, the PSC order said, because they were concerned that the Elk might not provide an adequate supply.
The PSC added, “An adequate supply will be available with the inclusion of an additional intake at the treatment plant site, but this will mean using Kanawha River backwater during periods of extreme low flow of the Elk River.”
But it appears the Coonskin intake was never used to provide water to the new treatment plant. Another handwritten health department memo, dated Aug. 15, 1969, approves West Virginia American’s construction of a “raw water intake located on the Elk River” at the treatment plant site.
Officials from the health department, known now as the state Department of Health and Human Resources, have refused to make public more-detailed permit plans or records that might explain more about the intake location decisions.
DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said in an email, “We can’t release a copy of the plans as they contain confidential information and would pose a homeland security risk.”
Adler said construction plans submitted by West Virginia American Water showed intakes proposed for the Kanawha and the Elk, but she said agency records for the plant don’t mention — and current agency officials don’t know — anything about the Coonskin intake.
“We do not have any records that show a Coonskin intake,” said Walt Ivey, director of environmental engineering at the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health. “We do not know why the Coonskin intake was eliminated or if it was necessary for the health department at that time to approve the decommission of that intake.”
In one of the lawsuits filed over the leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, lawyers for some Kanawha Valley residents and businesses fault the water company for having “only a single intake” at the treatment plant, and they cited parts of the PSC case history in recent filings in U.S. District Court in Charleston.
On Thursday, West Virginia American lawyers responded to that issue. They noted that the health department and the PSC had rejected the Kanawha intake, and that, even after commission approval, the revised project still needed final design and approval from the health department.
Water company lawyers filed two pages of design plans, showing a new, single intake on the Elk River at the new plant’s site. The document listed “changes,” including “relocated intake structure,” and water company lawyers noted the old health department permit record that approved the treatment plant location for the intake.
Since the chemical leak in January, West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre has sometimes noted publicly, when pressed about why the treatment plant has only one intake, that his company proposed one intake on the Elk and one on the Kanawha, but that state agencies rejected the Kanawha intake.
Additionally, in the PSC’s investigation of West Virginia American’s response to the leak, water company lawyers have been trying to keep the scope of the commission’s inquiry narrow, arguing that events before Jan. 9, 2014, should not be part of the inquiry. The PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division, along with local businesses and citizens who intervened in the case, argue for a broader investigation.
In a filing this week with the PSC, lawyers for West Virginia American expressed concern that the commission might allow the inquiry to broaden but also not allow any discussion of “pre-spill plant certification,” such as the original plant approval — and the Kanawha intake rejection.
“Since January, it has become well known that there is a significant plant certification issue that, if resolved differently by regulators at the time, might have fundamentally changed the company’s ability to respond to the spill,” water company lawyers said. “Allowing intervenors to focus on a narrow range of pre-spill issues (e.g., ‘upgrades or modifications to the plant,’ ‘capability to measure the presence of chemical contaminants at its intake,’ ‘early warning monitoring system’), but disallowing any evaluation of plant certification/configuration decisions that are just as likely (if not more so) to have affected the spill response and spill impact, would be fundamentally unfair.”
The PSC has a hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Monday at commission headquarters to consider the scope of its investigation.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.