Water Worries: Charleston’s problem points to ways water supply can be contaminated

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More than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry from a Patriot Coal operation in Kanawha County ran down Fields Creek and into the Kanawha River the morning and afternoon of Feb. 10.


Article courtesy of Jim Ross | February 14, 2014 | The State Journal | Shared as educational material

The water in Fields Creek flowed black Feb. 11, with fine particles of coal swirling on the surface like smoke from a cigarette.

The otherwise inconspicuous creek in eastern Kanawha County turned black because of a slurry spill at the Kanawha Eagle prep plant about six miles above the creek’s mouth on the Kanawha River.

This time, there was no immediate danger to water supplies. Fields Creek empties into the Kanawha about 71 miles above the Kanawha’s mouth on the Ohio River, and there are no municipal water intakes on that part of the river. The next intake downstream on the Ohio is at Huntington, another 41 miles away. The slurry was visible in about half a mile of the Kanawha before it settled and dissipated.

Yet what happened on Fields Creek was a reminder that things can go wrong quickly when it comes to protecting the state’s abundant supply of drinking water.

Whether it’s a one-time event such as a chemical spill in a river or an ongoing problem such as substances leaking from old coal mines, the safety of public water supplies is an ongoing discussion in the Mountain State.

What happened in Charleston last month has other communities looking out for possible problems in their water supplies, too.

Wheeling watching

GreenHunter Resources is a Texas-based company that specializes in wastewater treatment in the oil and gas industry. In West Virginia, it wants to take a tank farm formerly used for petroleum products and use it to recycle water that has been used and contaminated in hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells.

The tank farm the company wants to use is in the Warwood community, about a mile up the Ohio River from the municipal water intake.

The Kanawha River power plant at Glasgow has a stormwater drainage pipe under an ash pile, but the pile itself is dry, AEP says.

Local residents and officials were already working to make sure GreenHunter’s operations didn’t contaminate their drinking water the way Freedom Industries did in Charleston, but they are noticing what’s happening in the Kanawha Valley.

Among them is Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie.

McKenzie sees what has happened in Charleston as a sobering lesson for Wheeling. The city’s planning commission has conditionally approved plans by GreenHunter Water to locate its fracking water recycling plant above the city’s water intake, subject to obtaining state and federal permissions.

“It doesn’t make you rethink it, but it does make you think what can you do better so it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Government needs to monitor these kinds of facilities and enforce the regulations.”

“Clearly in Charleston, there were three or four major flaws. … The company was storing products in tanks that were defective and leaked, their retaining wall failed and allowed (the chemical) to get into the (Elk) River, the company didn’t alert officials in a timely fashion, and West Virginia American Water didn’t turn their pumps off.

“They thought they could handle it, but it all got into the system and was distributed throughout the community. All of those things failed.”

McKenzie said that as a community that does service water customers, “we need to make sure that any entity under our jurisdiction has the proper tanks, the proper retaining walls and a proper system of notification in place.”

Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, said GreenHunter’s proposed operation is different from Freedom Industries.

“The location, the potential operator as well as the materials they potentially will process are very different,” he said.

Wheeling officials have had a series of meetings with people from GreenHunter to figure out ways to prevent problems and to deal with any that arise, Gamble said. They discuss the product, process, storage and transport issues involved in the business, and they share contact information, he said.

One difference between Wheeling and Charleston is that Wheeling has a second source for water, Gamble said. A well can be used if the Ohio River intake is closed, he said.

People in Wheeling recognize there are other industrial facilities upstream that could have an accident that would force the city to close its water intakes, Gamble said. Boats on the Ohio River and trucks passing through town could have accidents that cause problems, he said.

Of course, that does not mean GreenHunter should be allowed to do whatever it wants, but it does mean people in the Northern Panhandle know about the risks that are already in play, Gamble said.

The health department itself does not issue operating permits. Neither does it inspect industrial operations, Gamble said. However, it does participate in the development and implementation of emergency plans, he said.

Coal slurry

The incident on Fields Creek this week reminded people there is still plenty that can go wrong at coal processing operations.

In this case, a seal on a valve on a slurry line failed sometime between 2:30 and 5:30 a.m. Feb. 11, according to Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Apparently an alarm system did not alert anyone to the problem, so the slurry pumps continued to run and the leak overwhelmed the site’s secondary containment, Huffman said. Based on the pump’s capacity and other factors, the DEP calculates that as much as 108,000 gallons of slurry spoiled the lower six miles of Fields Creek.

At first, the DEP thought the slurry contained MCHM, the same material from Freedom Industries that contaminated the Charleston water system. Later, the DEP learned that Patriot Coal, which operates the Kanawha Eagle prep plant, discontinued use of MCHM after the Charleston incident.

Kanawha Eagle has had other problems in the past, and this time a fine might not be enough, Huffman said.

“Maybe there needs to be a top-down review of all their processes,” he said. “Maybe there’s a cultural change within that company that needs to take place that has more of an emphasis on safety, environmental controls, things like that.

“I’m not going to put a limit on the type of things that may need to take place in order to prevent these things.”

But, Huffman said, “this is a big deal.”

“This is a significant slurry spill,” he said. “A pump running for three hours before someone shuts it off, that’s unacceptable.”

Coal ash

The city of Danville, Va., has had to deal with a possible water contamination problem this month that didn’t even originate within its borders.

The afternoon of Feb. 2, a security guard patrolling the grounds of Duke Energy’s idled Dan River power plant in North Carolina discovered that a pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond had collapsed. Perhaps 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, changing the color of the Dan River from brown to gray for miles. The Associated Press stated the accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation’s history.

Could that happen here? Not likely, say spokesmen for the two largest utilities in West Virginia.

Stephanie Walton, senior communications representative for FirstEnergy, the holding company for most electric utilities in northern West Virginia, said that company has no ash piles in the state with drainage pipes under them.

Melissa McHenry, director of external communications for American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, said only one AEP plant in West Virginia has such a pipe. That is the Kanawha River plant along the Kanawha River between Charleston and Montgomery.

One pipe is under a fly ash pond that is dry and has been inactive since the 1980s, she said. The other is under a bottom ash pond that is active. The pipe handles stormwater runoff. It is made of reinforced concrete, she said. AEP plans to do video inspections of the pipes when winter weather ends, McHenry said.

“We also do annual inspections of all our ash ponds anyway,” she said.

Also, all discharges from the pipes are monitored as part of the plant’s water permit, she said.

Linda Harris contributed to this story.

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