Region Forward Blog

West Virginia Spill Calls Attention to Water Safety for DC Area Officials Residents

Mar 12, 2014
National Guardsman loading a truck with cases of bottled water during the contamination event. Photo by the U.S. National Guard.


COG staff spoke with a reporter from WAMU on their experience in West Virginia described in the blog below. Click here to read and listen to the story on the spill response and aftermath which aired on June 6 2014.

The Washington region’s waterways have steadily improved over the decades. The Po​tomac River has undergone a major turnaround and the Anacostia River is showing signs of progress. Advancing these long-term improvements includes planning for emergencies that could threaten our water quality most importantly our drinking water supply.

In nearby Charleston West Virginia the Elk River experienced a major chemical spill on January 9th of this year. Though the spill occurred in a neighboring state our Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River watersheds were completely unaffected by this widely reported water contamination.

Just days after the spill COG’s Department of Environmental Programs dispatched a team to Charleston to observe the response and bring back information to the region. The Elk River spill is an opportunity for our water utilities and jurisdictions to discuss plans and technologies to monitor our own drinking water sources and improve coordination in the event that a similar situation was to occur in the National Capital Region.

“It smelled pungently of licorice”

Approximately 11000 gallons of the chemical 4-methycyclohexane or MCHM (a chemical used in processing coal) leaked into the Elk River just upstream of the American Water West Virginia intake the largest drinking water system in West Virginia. 300000 people immediately felt the effects of the contamination and a Do Not Use notice was soon issued. Because there was limited data on MCHM and its potential health effects the initial situation was highly uncertain.

While in West Virginia the COG team of chemical engineer Julie Karceski and water supply expert Lisa Ragain noted that none of the restaurants they observed were using tap water in food preparation. Karceski did not use the water in the tap of her hotel and recalled at one point she“accidentally went to drink water in our hotel lobby and it smelled pungently of licorice.” Money was lost by businesses while low-income residents and elderly people had to be brought water at their homes: one-sixth of West Virginians couldn’t be sure that their water was safe.

Karceski met with the DC National Guard Civil Support Team who provided a detailed briefing on sampling and flushing procedures and escorted her through the mobile labs and field operations established after the spill. The Civil Support Team’s “professionalism and efficiency cannot be understated” Karceski said. The National Guard Team set up labs within hours of the spill and sent water samples to five separate laboratories for additional testing almost immediately. The COG Team found the National Guard’s response reassuring. In the case of a severe water emergency in the National Capital Region they would be a critical resource.

This side of the Appalachians

Over the past 30 years COG has worked with utilities and governments in the National Capital Region to develop and update a Water Supply Emergency Plan to prepare for and respond to emergencies The plan has been used for a number of actual events including droughts oil and sewage contamination events as well as in regional exercises that have helped insure the plan is as effective as possible for the region. In addition COG manages the NCR WARN (Water/Waste Water Response Network) a program designed for utilities to share resources and information during emergencies. Jurisdictions and utilities regularly conduct emergency response exercises and are using the WV contamination event as an opportunity to evaluate our existing monitoring and communication methods.

Our drinking water’s safety and quality is continuously monitored by local utilities. In 2004 to supplement the utility monitoring program a regional early warning monitoring network was established through COG using federal homeland security and other funding. The monitoring network stretches from West Virginia to Washington D.C. These monitors are used to detect changes in water quality and can provide real-time information to water systems. A confirmed change in water quality elicits a response by local utilities as established in their emergency response plans.

Water quality and safety have been major priorities for leaders at the Council of Governments for decades and the events in West Virginia are a reminder of their continued importance. COG Staff went to West Virginia not only to witness the response to a crisis but to further our region’s abilities to quickly and deftly respond to such a crisis. This better prepares our region’s safety environment and community resilience. Improving response time and recovering sooner are also critical for the economic impact on governments and businesses of an affected region. In the months and years ahead COG will continue to work with area partners to protect the region’s water supply and plan for emergencies.



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