CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Last year’s chemical leak quickly spread throughout West Virginia American Water’s Charleston-based distribution system. The water company has announced it will start a continuous monitoring program on the Elk River. Such monitoring is a critical element of a safe water system that detects contamination before it reaches customers.
In a January report to the Legislature, West Virginia American Water described plans to install monitoring equipment to measure water properties like acidity, temperature, salts, minerals and trace organic chemicals.
Unfortunately, the instrument they chose to detect organic chemicals — total organic carbon — has serious limitations and is blind to a broad class of chemicals which includes, remarkably, MCHM, the chemical culprit of last year’s water crisis.
Thousands of pounds of MCHM remain in the soil at the Freedom Industries site just one mile upstream of the Elk River treatment plant intake. The chemical class not detected also includes significant components of diesel fuel and other chemicals, all potential spill candidates and transported by truck and train in the Kanawha Valley.
There are two types of TOC instruments. The simplest and least expensive is to shine ultraviolet light through a water sample to detect pollutants. But this works only for chemicals that absorb UV light.
In contrast, higher-quality instruments perform a chemical reaction to detect all possible trace organic pollutants and measure their concentration. This is the more inclusive “best practices” instrument already used by major water plants, including plants in Morgantown, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and Roanoke, as well as by the chemical industry here in the Kanawha Valley and the South Charleston Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Deficiencies of the UV instrument, compared to the higher-quality analyzer, are well-documented. In 2012 EPA testing, UV sensors detected only half of the pollutants detected by higher-quality TOC analyzers. That report also stated: “diesel fuel did not exhibit sufficient absorption at 254 [nanometers] at the concentration used in this study to be detected.”
More recent research commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin found that water solutions of MCHM show no useful UV absorbance, according to Andrew J. Whelton in “Environmental Science & Technology” (Dec. 16, 2014).
The benefit/cost ratio of the higher-quality TOC analyzer is huge. The 2014 water crisis cost the water company over $12 million. Its price tag for the regional economy is estimated at over $75 million. Twenty high-quality TOC analyzers would cost just 1 percent of the damage to our regional economy.
But West Virginia American Water needs only two, one at the intake and the other farther upstream as an early warning system.
Because such large volumes of chemicals are produced/stored/transported here in central West Virginia and because WVAW’s Elk River plant is charged with supplying safe and pure water to one-sixth of the state’s residents, in a nine-county region, the higher-quality “best practices” TOC instrument must be used to protect the water system.
Continuous monitoring of the Elk River is the simplest, least expensive and most immediate step that we can take toward a safe water system in the Kanawha Valley. Isn’t it time we moved forward to effectively monitor for spills and protect our public health?
Philip Price is an analytical chemist with experience in trace chemical measurements, Superfund site investigations and environmental chemistry. Jim Hatfield is a chemical engineer with expertise in measurement and control systems. Both worked for decades at Union Carbide and are members of Advocates for a Safe Water System (firstname.lastname@example.org).