Region Forward Blog

The Worth of Water

Jan 13, 2015

Shortly after the MCHM spill in the Elk River just outside Charleston, West Virginia, COG sent water quality specialists to the site to observe the response methods to the crisis. This post comes one year after the spill.

In the period of a month, our region marked two drinking water milestones: 2014 began with the Elk River chemical spill near Charleston, WV, which contaminated water supplies for more than 300,000 people, and closed with the 40th anniversary of Safe Drinking Water Act. What do these disparate events have in common? They provide two lenses to examine our region’s drinking water health and safety. First, a recap of events in West Virginia and their influence in the National Capital Region.

On January 9, 2014 the city of Charleston and nine counties in West Virginia were placed on a Do Not Use drinking water advisory. The day before, an estimated 11,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a compound used in processing coal, started leaking from a tank. The MCHM seeped onto the banks of the Elk River and into the Charleston region’s primary drinking water source. MCHM has a distinct licorice odor and taste. It was that odor that prompted neighbors in the area to call West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WV DEP) to investigate, and ultimately led to the identification of the leak on the morning of January 9. That afternoon, West Virginia American Water issued the Do Not Use notice for their service area. Tap water could be used only for sanitation and fire suppression.

Metropolitan Washington’s Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River watersheds were far removed from any contamination risk. However, NCR water systems and COG noted the severity of the West Virginia situation and similarities to contamination scenarios considered in planning for regional drinking water emergencies. Given these similarities and the opportunity to learn from a regional, multi-county, multi-agency response to a water contamination event, COG determined that the West Virginia chemical spill required regional attention and response. As the West Virginia event continued, it became apparent that the NCR had a great opportunity to learn from the event and apply the lessons to regional planning.

One-year ago today, COG determined that direct observation of the spill response and recovery would provide a unique source of information for the region. First-hand experience in West Virginia was a rare opportunity to inform regional planning and preparedness. The decision was made to send a team with two charges: Observe and bring back information on the technical response (monitoring, sampling and flushing), and; Survey county, state and federal agency coordination and communication.

What about our region’s water?

The Elk River was a catalyst for advancing the NCR water sector planning and response if a similar event occurred in the National Capital Region. The water sector leveraged the Elk River event and the COG team’s direct observations into actions that are integral to developing regional capabilities for response and recovery for water supply emergencies. The NCR water systems and Water Security Work Group prioritized actions and projects; agencies and jurisdictions have been working on taking action to plan for and respond to events like the West Virginia chemical spill and other water contamination events. NCR water systems, COG, the Potomac River Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) in collaboration with jurisdictions and state agencies are engaged in significant efforts outlined below:

Source Water Protection: Regional water systems are evaluating and updating their source water assessment plans. This will include incorporating additional data on upstream contamination risks such as chemical storage tanks.

Monitoring: Water systems have collaborated on a regional source water and distribution system contaminant warning system since 2005. The current system is being assessed and technology will be upgraded.

Response and Resilience: The region is reviewing emergency water supply options and working through mutual aid channels (NCR WARN) to enhance training and capacity for response to and recovery from events.

Collaboration and Communication: Water systems regularly meet with agencies and jurisdictions in the NCR to review communication plans, conduct emergency exercises, and prepare regional communications.

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