Water alternatives needed exploring, new PSC filings show

AP file photo
On Jan. 13, workers (left) inspect an area outside a retaining wall around the Freedom Industries tank farm in Charleston, from where a chemical leaked into the Elk River four days earlier.

A temporary drinking-water intake on the Kanawha River and barging in large amounts of emergency water were among the alternatives that could be examined in a never-completed plan for how West Virginia American Water could respond to a major chemical spill on the Elk River, documents the company made public this week show.

Providing emergency water to the Kanawha Valley from West Virginia American’s Huntington treatment plant also was an option that could be considered, according to the documents, filed by the company with the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC is investigating the water company’s response to the January Freedom Industries leak that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents in Charleston and surrounding communities.

Lawyers for West Virginia American filed more than 4,900 pages of documents with the PSC, in response to the commission’s Aug. 22 order that the water company provide records about its efforts to come up with a source-water protection plan and prepare protocols for responding to emergencies such as upstream chemical spills.

The records were disclosed in what the water company said was the “non-confidential” version of its response to the PSC’s document production order.

West Virginia American lawyers filed another version of its response under seal with the PSC. That version contains material the company continues to argue are protected from disclosure by state and federal anti-terrorism laws. It’s not clear how much material was withheld from public view. Other parties to the case, including consumer advocates and citizen groups, can argue that the secrecy isn’t warranted, and the PSC will eventually make a decision on whether those records should also be disclosed or not.

A significant portion of the water company’s public filing consists of water-sampling data sheets and phone-call and text-message logs that detail discussions among West Virginia American officials and between company officials and government representatives in the hours and days after the Jan. 9 leak. However, water company lawyers also provided some previously unreleased records they said illustrate West Virginia American’s “planning activities” related to “source water contamination” and “emergency response” prior to the incident.

One document, dated September 2006, describes “plans and activities” for developing a source-water protection plan for West Virginia American’s Kanawha Valley treatment and distribution plant in Charleston.

That document states that, “Due to the geography of the Elk River, it can be assumed that most spills on the Elk watershed will move quickly to the Kanawha River. Most major sources of chemical contamination are within a few miles of the [water treatment] plant.

“This leaves the most likely alternatives of shutting down the plant for some period of time to allow the spill to pass or trying to treat the spill using various technologies available,” the document states.

“Should a spill occur that is slow moving or has a very large plume, decisions would have to be [made] as to where to locate a temporary intake on the Kanawha River or bring in on barge temporary supplies of source water,” the document says. “The time required to put these plans in place would be prohibitive, and the system would have already gone dry and the company would have to notify the public.”

The document states that West Virginia American could have alternative sources of treatment water to serve the Charleston area, such as from the company’s Huntington treatment plant. In recent PSC testimony, though, West Virginia American said that alternative would not be able to provide the Kanawha with “a significant amount of water.”

It was not clear who authored the September 2006 document, but West Virginia American has said that it never completed a source-water protection plan for the Elk River treatment plant.

Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American, said the documents are “the subject of ongoing discovery in civil lawsuits and the PSC general investigation” and that the company will not comment on “the specifics of such issues while those matters are pending.”

Other documents filed with the PSC this week include a “Source Water Planning Proposal,” dated March 2011, in which the consulting firm Tetra Tech outlined a proposal for completing such protection plans for the Kanawha Valley plant and the facility in Huntington. Completing the Kanawha Valley plan would cost between $13,500 and $33,000, according to the Tetra Tech proposal.

The September 2006 document warned that “some chemicals may be untreatable” and that a “boil water order or a notice not to consume the water” could be needed if those chemicals contaminated the river.

The document states that the Kanawha Valley plant had on hand “a CD with a large database of chemical[s] and the proper treatment technologies for removal.” Other documents include a chemical data sheet for a chemical stored at a MarkWest Energy Partners facility 18 miles up the Elk River from the treatment plant.

West Virginia American has said that, at the time the Freedom Industries leak occurred, it did not have a material-safety data sheet, or MSDS, for Crude MCHM, the main chemical Freedom leaked into the Elk.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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