In January 2014, 11,000 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, leaked into West Virginia’s Elk River. The spill occurred in the source water for nine counties, affecting thousands of people. A “Do Not Use” Notice was issued, and President Obama declared a state of emergency.
A team from COG was sent to West Virginia to observe the spill and the region’s response, while considering how metropolitan Washington would handle a contamination of the Potomac. Lisa Ragain, then a COG consultant, was part of the delegation. According to Ragain, that experience informs her daily work as a Principal Water Resources Planner, protecting the region’s water supply and planning for emergencies.
Ragain’s focus on water began with the 1993 cryptosporidiosis outbreak in Milwaukee. She was working as a grassroots organizer and lobbyist for the National Association of People with Aids when the outbreak occurred. The waterborne disease killed approximately 100 people and sickened thousands – largely those with weakened immune systems such as children, the elderly, and AIDS patients. Since then, she’s worked on the 1996 Reauthorization of the Drinking Water Act, the EPA Drinking Water Requirements, and is primary author of the CDC Drinking Water Advisory Toolbox, which assists water systems and state or local agencies with communicating with the public about water advisories.
At COG, Ragain has been involved with upgrades to the regional early warning water security monitoring system and a regional source water assessment project.When the 2014 Ebola outbreak threatened metropolitan Washington, Ragain worked across sectors to aid with everything from developing quarantine messaging to addressing wastewater worker concerns.
Ragain’s expertise does not end with water systems. She has been involved with the efforts to improve safety within the Metro system following the January 12 smoke incident at the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station.
“If you understand how a water system is run, you can look at some of the challenges that Metro is facing and see opportunities for improvement,” said Ragain. “These are two infrastructures—water and transportation—that the region absolutely relies on.”
Ragain provided support at related briefings for policy officials at COG and WMATA, as well as members of Congress. She contributed to a study of Metro’s Underground Communications Systems, wrote a report documenting Metro’s underground radio system performance, and worked alongside the region’s fire chiefs and WMATA to update the Fire/Rescue Emergency Procedures Policy Agreement. The agreement outlines operating procedures during emergencies within the system.
Ragain is gearing up for a busy 2016—which will include a tabletop exercise with health officials and briefings for HAZMAT and Emergency Management Committees on source water protection. She is looking forward to working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on a research project on decontaminating plumbing, and is also excited about setting up cooperative purchasing contracts so that water and sewer authorities and agencies can save money on water treatment chemicals and equipment.
“I am really excited to come to work. I find it infinitely interesting. There’s always something new. I get to do practical work, and policy, and research. There aren’t many jobs where you get that whole package.”