Water Crisis in the United States, Part 3: Lead in Drinking Water

24234972202_550138a446_o-300x202Part three of our four-part series on water crises in America is on lead contamination. Instances of lead in drinking water, such as the situation in Flint, Michigan, have become a hot topic in the media. Lead in drinking water is a problem that reaches far beyond the disaster in Flint, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that roughly 10 million American homes and buildings still receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. When water has high acidity or low mineral content, it can cause these service lines to corrode and leach lead into the water supply. Without mitigation, water from lead service lines has the potential to cause adverse health effects, particularly in children.

The EPA states that, in the last three years, only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their drinking water. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee. This means that 41 states are consistently reporting higher than acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The problem is not only the lead service lines connecting water mains to homes and buildings, but also the lack of proper treatment to prevent corrosion of these lead pipes.

History of Lead Pipes in the U.S.

Residents of Flint, Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.
Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.

The use of lead pipes for water distribution has a centuries-old history. In the U.S., installation of lead pipes on a major scale began in the late 1800s, particularly in the larger cities. At one point, more than 70% of cities with populations greater than 30,000 used lead water lines. Lead pipes had two significant advantages over iron: they lasted almost twice as long and they were malleable enough to easily bend around existing structures. Of course, now we see the health risks associated with lead, and water systems across the country have taken steps to eliminate lead pipes in their distribution systems. Water companies and municipalities now must decide whether to replace all the lead pipe in their drinking water system, including home service lines on private property, or continue to add corrosion-control chemicals at the plant to prevent leaching of lead into the water supply.

Utilities and the Government Take Action

Water companies and municipalities across the country are working diligently to get lead out of our drinking water. Since replacing all of our nation’s lead piping may take over 20 years, utilities have found a short term solution to control the amount of lead in their drinking water. They are focusing on the treatment process and monitoring what makes up the drinking water. Introducing orthophosphates to the water supply and flushing all the standing water creates a scale of protective coating on the interior surfaces of lead pipes, reducing corrosion. This limits the amount of lead that leaches into the water and offers a short term solution as we figure out how to permanently replace all lead pipes from our water distribution systems.

Orthophosphates added to treated drinking water has created a protective coating on the interior surface of this lead pipe.

In Wisconsin, the Madison Water Utility has become a national model for cities struggling with lead in their drinking water. They are the first major utility in the nation to demonstrate that a full replacement of both the public and the private portions of lead service lines is possible. This involved working with residents to remove lead service lines from their homes and nearby property. The project started in 2001 and has provided safe drinking water to 5,600 property owners. The plan, which was very controversial at the time, is now hailed as a model and has spurred other utilities into action. For example, Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) implemented a program that offers a credit of up to $2,000 and interest-free loans to assist homeowners who are willing to remove lead pipes on their property. BWSC also has a searchable online database for homeowners to see if their property has a lead service line.  Also, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) announced earlier this year that it will provide $100 million to its member water communities to fully replace lead service lines, including residential lines. These utilities are shining examples of the many organizations taking a long term approach to this national crisis.

Recent news reports of lead in drinking water and the controversy surrounding testing methodologies have acted as a catalyst for public schools across the country to test their water. Unfortunately, many of these tests indicate high, potentially dangerous, levels of lead concentrations in public drinking fountains, sparking outcry from parents and prompting a series of public meetings. In response, the EPA changed lead testing regulations on February 29, 2016 and now require utilities to use wide mouth bottles, conduct no pre-stagnation flush, and to run faucets at typical flow rates when testing for lead — precisely the opposite of how testing had previously been conducted. While many people have been quick to blame utilities for lead in their drinking water and have even gone so far to suggest that utilities have been practicing testing “cheats,” they were in actuality following protocol issued by EPA.

The EPA is also considering changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s rules regarding lead, and an advisory panel has proposed a more proactive approach to replacing lead pipes. The proposal would encourage public water systems to replace lead pipes versus waiting for lead levels to spike to take action. This plan involves substantial increases in funding to water companies and municipalities for the replacement of lead pipes in both the public and the private portions of lead service lines, including residential lines. With this additional funding, water utilities across the country will be able to set goals for a permanent solution to our nation’s lead crisis. Admittedly, we have a long road ahead of us as many cities simply do not know the exact number or location of lead pipes in their system. Add to that the cost and person power required to replace our nation’s lead service lines, and it becomes apparent that a 100% lead-free infrastructure is still many years away.

What Can You Do?

When water sits stagnant in lead service lines for even a few hours, it picks up lead from the pipe, which can make using your faucet hazardous. Find out if your home is serviced by lead service lines by calling your local water department. This is especially important to homes built prior to 1980. If your home still has lead service lines, you can reduce the risk of lead contamination in your drinking water by taking some simple steps:

  • Call your State Department of Public Health for health information, or visit their website.
  • Run tap water until after the water feels cold. Flushing pipes in this way before use assures that you are not drinking water that has been sitting stagnant in pipes.
  • Never use hot water from the faucet for drinking or cooking, especially when making baby formula or food for small children. Hot water from your faucet has a higher chance of containing traces of lead. Instead, use cold water and heat it on the stove or in the microwave.

In Conclusion


The good news is that lead contaminated water crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan have called for stricter regulations and replacement of nearly six million lead service lines nationwide. The not so good news is that we still have a long way to go to completely remove all lead in our water systems. Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, and some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping that delivers water from the utilities to homes and businesses. Replacing lead service lines is the safest way to prevent lead contamination, and public and private water companies must work together with state and national organizations to replace lead pipes in all of our water distribution systems. Solving our lead contamination crisis will benefit everyone if we work together for a permanent solution. After all, everyone deserves safe drinking water.

Water Crisis in the United States, Part 2: Crumbling Infrastructure

cars driving through flooded road caused by burst water main

Continuing our July theme on water crises in the United States, this week’s article will dive into our nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure — and how we can fix it. America’s infrastructure is in serious trouble, especially our water systems. Although the quality of drinking water in the U.S. remains high, our aging water infrastructure can no longer be ignored. Many of the pipes are over 100 years old and are exceeding their useful life. We experience about 240,000 water main breaks each year, or one every two minutes. These breaks result in 1.7 trillion gallons of clean water wasted annually. If not replaced, these water systems are expected to cost over a trillion dollars in repairs in the coming decades and, more importantly, put people’s health at risk.

The State of Our Infrastructure

Severely corroded pipe
Severely corroded pipe

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) develops a report card that depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure. Our water and wastewater infrastructure both received a D grade, which is a slight improvement from the 2009 report card which ranked both water and wastewater at a D-.  Despite the subtle improvement, our country has a long way to go to bring our water systems up to date and make them adequate for future demands.

We as citizens have become blind to our failing infrastructure by accepting preventable environmental hazards as the norm. Events such as polluted and toxic drinking water, floods from levee failures, lead contamination, and constant pipeline bursts have become all too common in our nation. It is apparent that there is a pressing need for modernization, reliability, and long-term funding. Despite these alarming scores and figures, we can improve the current condition of our nation’s infrastructure if we take the right steps.

What We Can Do Now

A section of pipe showing extreme clogging
A section of pipe showing extreme clogging

One of the best ways municipalities and water companies can improve and monitor their aging water systems is pipe testing. Testing the strength of pipes provides insight on how likely a system is to fail or leak. Pipe testing also helps to identify areas of a water system needing repairs, which can save millions of gallons of water as well as a lot of money.

Another way to assess a water system is with an annual water audit. Water audits help municipalities and water companies figure out how to address non-revenue water (NRW). NRW is water that is pumped into the system but not accounted for due to leaks, theft, customer metering inaccuracies, and other inaccurate accounting of water use. Effective water audits can reduce the need for facility upgrades and expansions, reduce the need to find additional sources, and help protect public health by reducing the number of entry points for disease‐causing pathogens.

Although pipe testing and water audits assist in monitoring and improving water systems, the real solution is long term replacement through government and legislative action. To do so, we need to accomplish three important goals:

  • Increase leadership in infrastructure renewal. We need bold and compelling vision at the national level if we plan on getting anything done. A way we can make this happen is to tell our legislators to take action.
  • Promote sustainability and ongoing maintenance. Our infrastructure must meet our present and future demands as challenges continue to arise. Our water system problems are not just a one time fix; we need plans in place to monitor and maintain our systems for growing future demand.
  • Develop, prioritize, and fund plans to maintain and enhance our infrastructure. Once funded, infrastructure projects must be prioritized in ways that improve people’s lives and support a thriving economy. Fixing our infrastructure is going to be expensive. We need to prioritize future improvements based on the benefits and demand of the improvements so we can best serve everyone across the country. Everyone deserves clean, safe drinking water.

What to Take Away

faucet-drip-isolated-255x300The truth is, there is too much at stake to keep ignoring our weakening infrastructure. If we do not do something soon, Americans may be in for some serious surprises. Imagine not being able to drink the water that comes out of our faucets or even take a shower without worrying about water borne diseases and bacteria.  If we wish to seriously improve our water infrastructure, we need collaboration from all parties, both public and private. Politicians and lawmakers need to take definitive action and commit to a sustainable and reliable plan to make our water systems safe and adequate for the future. We need to make the condition of our country’s water systems a top priority.

Water Crisis in the United States, Part 1: Navajo Nation

Great_Seal_of_the_Navajo_Nation.svg_-300x300Water poverty has long been considered a global crisis, with over 783 million people worldwide — that’s one in nine people — lacking access to a safe, clean water supply. Over half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people afflicted with water-related illness, and over 80% of illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa are directly attributable to poor water and sanitation conditions. There are a plethora of charities dedicated to solving the global water crisis, including Tata & Howard’s and AWWA’s charity of choice Water For People. However, there are also water crises taking place right here in the United States. For the month of July, we will be delving into water crises in the United States — and how we can work together to solve them.

Navajo Nation

Last fall, CBS Sunday Morning News ran a cover story titled The Water Lady: A Savior Among the Navajo. The piece showcased Darlene Arviso, a Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission employee who delivers water to the people of Navajo Nation. Prior to that, the American people were largely unaware of the water crisis afflicting a full 40% of the 173,000 residents of Navajo Nation.

Russell Begaye, President of Navajo Nation
Russell Begaye, President of Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation, though located within the borders of the United States, is a soverign nation with its own president, and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the United States government. Therefore, it also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates all 155,000 public water supplies of the United States and ensures that our drinking water is safe and clean. Water poverty affects all aspects of life, including not only health and longevity, but also livelihood and education. Unfortunately, the people of Navajo Nation are no exception.

Many of the residents of Navajo Nation must travel many miles to gather water, the most fortunate of whom typically travel by car. However, a large percentage of these residents live well below the poverty level and can ill afford the cost of gasoline required to travel to gather water. Others must walk several miles — no different from their sub-Saharan counterparts. To make matters worse, the water they gather is often from livestock troughs or unregulated wells, frequently fouled by bacteria and other contaminants.

EPA warning to residents of Navajo Nation
EPA warning to residents of Navajo Nation

Adding insult to injury, much of the water in Navajo Nation is contaminated with uranium and arsenic due to the prevalence of mining that took place in the area during the nuclear arms race. Uranium and radioactive particles have been found in much of the water supply in Navajo Nation, and the rest has been contaminated by coal mining and coal-fired power plants. At this point, basically all of the water of Navajo Nation is contaminated in some way, which has affected the health of the citizens there. Nearly half of the residents have been touched by kidney ailments or cancer. Since the Navajo people now understand that the water in their land is poisonous, they are forced to travel even farther to find safe water. Some of the residents save up their money for gasoline and make the four-hour trek to Flagstaff, Arizona to buy bottled water when it is on sale.

Solving the Navajo Nation Water Crisis

 "Baby Lisa" — photo courtesy of Navajo Water Project
“Baby Lisa” — photo courtesy of Navajo Water Project

Fortunately, the Navajo water crisis is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Navajo Water Project, a subsidiary of DIGDEEP, is the sole water charity dedicated to the Navajo water crisis in the United States, and has a mission in which Tata & Howard firmly believes. Working with the Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission and subsisting on private donations, Navajo Water Project digs wells, installs water storage tanks, and brings in-home plumbing to those suffering from water poverty in Navajo Nation. Most recently, the Navajo Water Project issued a plea for Baby Lisa, a Navajo child born with Microvillus Inclusion Disease. Her illness requires her to have a feeding tube, for which she needs clean water. Without clean water, she could become seriously ill or even die, so Baby Lisa was living in a medical facility over three hours from her family home. The Navajo Water Project petitioned individuals and businesses for $50,000 to bring clean water to Baby Lisa’s home, and this past spring, they surpassed their goal. The Project is now in the process of installing plumbing in the family home.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an agreement in 2015 guaranteeing the water rights of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes in Nevada and ensuring water supplies and facilities for their Duck Valley Reservation. Joining Secretary Jewell in a signing ceremony was Shoshone-Paiute Chairman Lindsey Manning. — photo courtesy of nativenewsonline.net
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an agreement in 2015 guaranteeing the water rights of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes in Nevada and ensuring water supplies and facilities for their Duck Valley Reservation. Joining Secretary Jewell in a signing ceremony was Shoshone-Paiute Chairman Lindsey Manning. — photo courtesy of nativenewsonline.net

In addition to the Navajo Water Project, the Navajo have entered into agreements with the United States government. Since 1978, native Americans have entered into deals with the U.S. Department of the Interior in which they procure funding for their nation’s water supply in exchange for relinquishing some of their water claims to the federal government, states, and private investors. Additional deals are currently underway, including one in Utah that passed in January of this year. The deal secured millions in funding to build water infrastructure such as distribution systems and treatment facilities on Navajo land. And while many Navajo see these deals as the only way to improve their quality of life and support economic growth, others worry that by relinquishing their water rights they are essentially stealing from future Navajo generations who, if climate change progresses as predicted, may find their water supply has run dry.

In Conclusion

maxresdefault-225x300The answer to solving the water crisis of Navajo Nation is not simple. Bringing safe, clean water to the people of Navajo Nation will require both public and private investment. It will also require fair legislation that allows the Navajo to keep rights to water on their land while requiring the federal government to fund the cleanup of the waters that they contaminated. The nation has been in an uproar over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which hundreds of children suffered from lead poisoning from their water supply. However, we should also be outraged at the decades of water poverty and contamination that the people of Navajo Nation have endured. The time has come to address the water crisis in Navajo Nation and to ensure that ALL people living on U.S. soil are afforded the most basic human right to water.

National Almond Day — To Celebrate or Not To Celebrate?

The husk of the almond is not wasted - it is used in cattle feed
The husk of the almond is not wasted – it is used in cattle feed

National Almond Day is February 16, but not everybody is celebrating. While the almond is a nutritious and delicious nut, it is also a water-intensive crop that is grown in one of the most drought-stricken areas of the United States – California. But is it actually the villain it has been cracked up to be? Let’s take a look at some facts.

Almonds contain the highest amount of protein of any tree nut, and they are also packed with fiber, calcium, vitamin E, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorus, and magnesium. This nutritional powerhouse adds a delightful crunch to salads or oatmeal, is easily packaged for a quick on-the-go snack, and can be made into almond butter or almond milk. In addition, almonds contain healthy fats and are frequently included in weight loss plans, as they help curb appetite.

On the flip side, almonds have recently drawn widespread criticism because of their water footprint. It takes roughly 1.1 gallons of water to grow just one almond, and almond trees are almost exclusively grown in water-parched California. California’s mild winters and dry summers, combined with its limited temperature range, make it the perfect climate for growing almond trees, as they are intolerant of extreme cold, excessive heat, and high humidity. In fact, over 99% of America’s almonds and over 85% of the world’s almonds are grown in California — and they account for over 10% of the state’s total water usage.

Alfalfa is primarily grown to feed cattle
Alfalfa is primarily grown to feed cattle

Considering that 98% of the state is under drought and California Governor Jerry Brown mandated that cities and towns cut their water usage by 25%, it’s no surprise that almonds have come under heavy fire. After all, unlike other crops whose fields go fallow on a seasonal basis, almond trees require year-round watering, and the water footprint — 46 gallons of water per each 1-oz. serving of almonds — appears to be an alarming statistic. But let’s look at some additional statistics to put it into perspective. To produce one 4-oz. serving of rice requires about 83 gallons of water, one 0.5-oz. serving of chocolate requires about 130 gallons, and that quarter pound hamburger? A whopping 660 gallons of water. In fact, the California meat and dairy industry accounts for about 47% of the state’s total water usage. Almond opponents note that the amount of land used for almond production has grown by almost 50% over the last ten years. However, it should also be noted that much of the land in question replaced land previously used for growing rice, which is arguably a thirstier crop on a per serving basis.

California agriculture contributes greatly to America’s food supply

Perhaps the answer is to reduce the amount of agriculture in California. After all, a staggering 80% of California’s developed water is used for agriculture. But consider this: California has the world’s eighth largest economy, and it produces about half of all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the United States. California produces more than 90% of all the domestically consumed tomatoes, strawberries, and broccoli, and nearly 100% of our pistachios, almonds, and walnuts. So unless Americans are willing to forgo many lunch and dinner staples, ending agriculture in California may not be the answer.

Then what is the solution? Admittedly, it is not a simple one. Conservation certainly plays a role, as does the innovation and implementation of new, sustainable technology. Harvesting rainwater, reusing wastewater, desalination, and banking groundwater are existing, viable solutions. Also, considering our nation loses 1.7 trillion gallons of clean, treated water per year to leaks — or about one and a half times the total amount of water used by almond trees per year — repairing our failing infrastructure must be a national priority. Even small changes, like eating one vegan dinner per week or planting white clover instead of grass, can have significant impact when implemented on a large scale.

Almond joy dessert

So on National Almond Day, feel free to enjoy your green beans almondine or indulge in an almond joy dessert, while also being cognizant of our nation’s water crisis. If Americans can implement small modifications to personal habits while committing to investing in infrastructure and sustainable technology, our nation can be assured of having adequate clean, safe water — and almonds — for generations to come.

Happy National Almond Day!


Desalination: a viable option?

iceberg for water supply
Some people have suggested towing icebergs to places that need freshwater. Photo: SERPENT Project

Drought. Scarcity. Pollution. Climate change. Demand. Overpopulation. These are all issues with our nation’s water supply with which we have become all too familiar. Engineers and water systems are scrambling for solutions, and countless possibilities — some as basic as conservation and water bans and some as complicated as water reclamation and transporting icebergs — have been considered. Communities struggle to meet demand with dwindling supply and a limited budget, and many have begun to give desalination serious consideration.

Desalination, or the process of removing salt from water, used to be summarily dismissed as a supply option due to its expense and energy consumption. However, in light of the increase in water scarcity, desalination has become a feasible option for many water-stressed communities. Already commonplace throughout the Middle East, desalination plants are now popping up all over southern California and Texas. Let’s look at some facts about global desalination:

  • carlsbad desalination plant
    When complete, the Carlsbad, CA desalination plant will be the largest in the western hemisphere

    Dubai sources over 98% of its potable water supply from desalination

  • Global leaders in desalination are Saudi Arabia with 17% of global output, United Arab Emirates with 13.4%, and the United States with 13%
  • Nearly 70% of Israel’s domestic water consumption comes from desalination
  • Most desalination plants are in the Middle East, where energy is less expensive and environmental regulations are less stringent
  • Currently under construction, the $1 billion, 50 mgd Carlsbad desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA will be the largest in the western hemisphere when completed
  • Costing $2 billion, the Sydney, Australia desalination plant has not produced any water since 2012 due to high dam levels

desalination diagramThe most commonly utilized desalination technology is reverse osmosis (RO), which was invented in California in the 1950s. RO uses high pressure to force water through fine membranes that leave the salt behind. For every two gallons of salty water, only one gallon is made available as freshwater. The whole process utilizes an exorbitant amount of energy, with energy accounting for up to half the total cost of desalination. In fact, desalinated water costs about $2,000 per acre-foot, which is approximately the amount of water used by a family of four in six months. Because less salty water requires less energy for processing, the most cost-effective desalination plants treat brackish, or slightly salty, water rather than seawater.

desalination fish
Impinged fish

There are some environmental concerns surrounding desalination as well. The highly concentrated salt brine left behind requires disposal. However, because it is twice as dense as seawater, it sinks to the ocean floor and spreads, suffocating bottom-dwelling marine life. Therefore, the brine byproduct must be mixed with freshwater, typically in the form of treated wastewater or cooling water from a power plant, prior to being released into the ocean. In addition, fish and other marine life are often sucked toward the intake pipes where they are killed on the intake screens (impingement), and smaller marine life, such as plankton, larvae, and fish eggs, pass through the screens and are killed during the desalination process itself (entrainment). Fortunately, there have been some recent innovations to address these concerns. For example, subsurface intakes pull seawater from beneath the seafloor, virtually eliminating impingement and entrainment. An added bonus to subsurface intakes is the fact that the sand acts as a natural filter that pre-filters the water, reducing the plant’s chemical and energy usage.

California’s Central Valley is largely agricultural and relies heavily on irrigation

This summer, HydroRevolution, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based agricultural and commercial water producer WaterFX, announced its plans to build California’s first commercial solar desalination plant in the state’s heavily agricultural Central Valley. The plant will run solely off solar thermal energy and will utilize Aqua4, a new desalination technology that produces only solid salt and freshwater, with zero excess discharge. In addition, it will utilize unusable irrigation water from a 7,000-acre ditch rather than seawater. The plant will provide the necessary freshwater for the area’s irrigation needs without the energy consumption or concentrated briny discharge of traditional desalination plants. Admittedly, having the 7,000-acre ditch from which to draw the water helps immeasurably, and isn’t an option for most other areas.

But desalination isn’t only being used in the southwestern part of the country. In Massachusetts, the Town of Swansea recently opened the first publicly held desalination facility in the Northeast. A coastal town, Swansea experienced a population boom that led to groundwater supplies running low, which in turn allowed seawater to seep into the aquifers. The result was a water crisis that forced the enactment of water bans, steep fines – and even left 30% of the town without water for a brief period one summer.

According to Robert Marquis, who has acted as Swansea’s water manager for over 40 years, “We just couldn’t support a burgeoning population or commercial growth,” he said. “Anything that came into Swansea, we were objecting to it if it was going to be water intensive.”

Designed with the help of Tata & Howard’s own John Cordaro, P.E., the Swansea desalination facility has been online for over a year, and took home a third place global finish at the 2014 Global Water Awards, losing only to Dubai, Singapore, and Sorek, Israel.

reverse osmosis membrane
A semipermeable reverse osmosis membrane coil used in desalination

There is one matter with RO that, while a non-issue in sunny southern Californian, is a primary concern to the Northeast: RO filters are delicate and highly intolerant of ice, and cease being functional below 36°F. To address this issue, Swansea installed two miles of pipes in order to sufficiently heat the incoming river water prior to its entering the plant.

For water-stressed Swansea, desalination has been a successful solution. But nearby Brockton, Massachusetts has not realized the same benefit from their desalination facility. Costing roughly $120 million, the plant was constructed to utilize brackish river water as opposed to seawater, which Brockton officials believed would make the whole process affordable. However, seven years later, the water produced by the Brockton desalination plant is still too expensive, so the city has turned to a local lake as its source, leaving the costly desalination plant largely in disuse.

While desalination is heavily utilized throughout the Middle East, it has only recently come under serious consideration in the United States. As water scarcity increases due to population growth, climate change, and growing demand, alternative water source options are receiving close attention. Once not even considered due to energy costs and environmental concerns, desalination has become a frequent and sincere topic of conversation for meeting future needs. And with further advances in technology that address both energy usage and environmental impact, there remains a strong possibility that desalination could become a widely acceptable solution nationwide. Now if folks could just get on board with water reclamation

Senators Introduce Legislation in Response to West Virginia Water Crisis

UNITED STATES - Jan 14: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVA., talks with reporters on the way to the Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on January 14, 2014. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES – Jan 14: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVA., talks with reporters on the way to the Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on January 14, 2014. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

In response to the recent water crisis that left over 300,000 West Virginians without water, a group of Senate Democrats have prepared a bill that aims to protect the American people from chemical spills that threaten public drinking water supplies. US Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) intend to introduce The Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014, which includes both prevention of and preparedness for future chemical spills, to Congress when they return from recess this week.

Key principles of the bill include implementing regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities and requiring the industry to develop state-approved emergency response plans. In addition, the bill would allow states to recoup costs incurred from responding to emergencies.

“No West Virginian or American should have to go through something like this again, and that is why I plan to introduce common sense legislation to make sure all chemicals are appropriately monitored,” Senator Manchin said. “We can work to improve the safety of Americans by ensuring that chemicals are properly managed, while also balancing the positive impact the chemical industry has made to our country.”

Senator Boxer said, “This legislation protects children and families across the nation by providing the tools necessary to help prevent dangerous chemical spills that threaten their drinking water.”

“The fact that there was a lack of regulations which allowed this particular storage facility to go uninspected for so many years is absurd,” Senator Rockefeller said. “I’m encouraged we are taking these steps to bring some accountability to industry that will help protect West Virginia families and our state’s economy.”

The Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 aims to implement the following initiatives:

State Programs: Establish state programs under the Safe Drinking Water Act to oversee and inspect chemical facilities that present a threat to sources of drinking water;

Build on Existing Drinking Water Protection Plans: Direct states to use existing source water protection plans developed under the Safe Drinking Water Act to identify facilities that present a risk to drinking water;

Minimum Federal Standards for State Programs: Establish minimum standards for chemical facilities subject to a state program, including the following:

  • Construction standards;
  • Leak detection and spill and overfill requirements;
  • Emergency response and communications plans;
  • Notification of the EPA, state officials, and public water systems of chemicals that are being stored at a facility.

Minimum Inspection Requirements: Require inspection of these facilities on a regular basis. Facilities identified in drinking water protection plans are inspected every 3 years and all other facilities are inspected every 5 years;

Ensure Drinking Water Systems Have Information: Require information on chemical facilities to be shared with drinking water systems in the same watershed;

Give Drinking Water Systems Tools to Address Emergencies: Allow drinking water systems to act in emergency situations to stop an immediate threat to people who receive drinking water from a public water system;

Ensure States Can Recover Costs for Response: Allow states to recoup costs incurred from responding to emergencies.

The chemical facility that caused the West Virginia water crisis, Freedom Industries, had not been inspected in over 20 years, did not report the spill, and had no emergency response plan in place. Read about the crisis here.

The West Virginia Water Crisis: a Warning for our Future

no water sign

Over the past several days, over 300,000 consumers in West Virginia have been unable to use their tap water for any purpose other than toilet flushing due to a chemical leak from coal manufacturer Freedom Industries. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), was stored in antiquated 40,000 gallon tanks very close to the Elk River. You can read about the leak here: https://nbcnews.to/1hT9Iz9

Questions are certainly being raised surrounding this crisis. Could it have been handled better? Could it have been avoided altogether? And finally, is there a way to prevent this type of disaster from happening again? And the answer to all is an unequivocal yes.

First, there are no regulations for MCHM, even though some warning flags had been raised. From the Charleston Saturday Gazette-Mail:

Last February, Freedom Industries sent state officials a form telling them the company stored thousands of pounds of a coal-cleaning chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol in the storage tanks at its Etowah River Terminal.

The facility, along the Elk River not far from downtown Charleston, is about 1.5 miles upstream from the intake West Virginia American Water uses to supply drinking water for 300,000 residents across the capital city and the surrounding region.

Freedom Industries filed its “Tier 2” form under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. State emergency response officials got a copy. So did emergency planners and responders from Kanawha County.

Under the law, government officials are supposed to use chemical inventory information on Tier 2 forms, like Freedom Industries’, to prepare for potential accidents.

Armed with the forms, they know what facilities could explode, where large quantities of dangerous substances are stockpiled, and what industries could pose threats to things such as drinking water supplies. They can plan how to evacuate residents, fight fires or contain toxic leaks.

On Thursday morning, an unknown amount of the chemical leaked from one of Freedom Industries’ tanks into the Elk River. By late afternoon, West Virginia American Water was warning residents across a nine-county region not only not to drink their water, but also not to use it for anything except flushing toilets or fighting fires.

Now, all manner of federal, state and local agencies are rushing to truck in water and otherwise see to residents’ needs, following Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s declaration of a “state of emergency” and President Obama’s order to provide federal assistance.

Those same agencies and public officials, though, have said they know little about the chemical involved. They’re all acting a bit surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like this could have happened.

Clearly, state officials were well informed on the location and volume of MCHM near a public water supply, yet they took no action, not even to inspect the tanks. And the reason is simple: there is very little information on the level of toxicity of MCHM, and it is therefore not regulated.

Freedom Industries plant along Elk River, Lawrence PierceFreedom Industries’ tanks do not fall under any jurisdiction and do not require any type of inspection because MCHM is not considered hazardous enough to require permitting, even though it causes skin irritation as well as nausea and vomiting. In fact, Freedom Industries wasn\’t under any type of state oversight, said Michael Dorsey, Chief of the State Department of Environmental Protection’s Homeland Security and Emergency Response office.

“In my world – I’m a hazmat guy – this stuff’s below my radar screen until this happens,” said Dorsey. “The tanks themselves, we don’t have the regulatory authority to inspect those tanks.”

Fortunately, that is likely to change. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman noted, “We are working on some ideas right now. I think a lot of folks will be calling for legislation and rightly so.”

In addition, Freedom Industries themselves failed the public in two ways. First, company executives knew full well that the tanks and retaining walls – dating back to the 1930’s and 40’s – were antiquated and desperately needed replacement. Multiple holes up to one inch in diameter were clearly visible in the tanks and walls, and it is generally accepted that the leak into the water supply was two-fold, through holes in both a tank and a retaining wall. Freedom Industries, in full knowledge of the chemicals they stored, the proximity to the public water supply, and the poor condition of their tanks and walls, clearly operated with gross negligence by failing to replace said tanks and walls. But their negligence doesn\’t stop there.

Freedom Industries did not report or respond appropriately. State law mandates immediate reporting of any chemical spill, yet state environmental workers arrived at the spill site at 11:15am on Thursday because of a phone call from West Virginia American Water Company – not Freedom Industries, said Huffman. The water company, who had received complaints from local residents about a licorice-like smell in the water starting at around 7:30am, was quick to alert authorities. Conversely, Freedom Industries was also aware of the leak yet failed to report it. Two Freedom Industries employees noted the smell as well as the leak at around 10:30am and informed company president Gary Southern, who did not report the spill or attempt any type of containment. This inaction very well may have exacerbated an already dire situation.

“Had they put containment measures in place the instant they knew, it’s logical to deduce that there wouldn’t have been as much product in the stream,” Huffman said.

In response to this gross negligence, there have already been six lawsuits filed against Freedom Industries. On January 13, the DEP demanded that Freedom Industries cease its operation and immediately conduct integrity tests of all storage tanks and secondary containment structures, and on Wednesday, January 15, the DEP issued five citations against Freedom Industries.

emergency responseLastly, there was no plan in place for dealing with such an emergency. The EPA mandates an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) as well as training for utilities servicing over 3,300 customers in case of emergency. The Bioterrorism Act, which went into effect in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, requires the preparation of an initial ERP, but not its maintenance. The EPA has noted that an ERP is a living document that should be updated annually at a minimum.  Without these updates, an ERP quickly loses its efficacy. A sampling of required action items within an ERP include partnerships with law enforcement, public health officials, emergency workers, and first responders from local to federal levels; general emergency response policies and procedures; identification of alternative water sources; chain-of-command chart; communication procedures and notification lists; personnel safety; property protection; training, exercises, and drills; assessment; and general and incident-specific emergency action procedures. Clearly, an ERP is a comprehensive and crucial tool in maintaining public safety and in mitigating damage and difficulty in times of emergency.

The water crisis in West Virginia was certainly stressful and inconvenient, impacting local residents and businesses both emotionally and financially. However, West Virginians are fortunate that the leaked chemical was not overly toxic and that, so far, nobody has suffered any long-term effects or lost their life. Hopefully, this crisis will be limited to an inconvenience and used as a warning of how we need to be better prepared in case of a serious water-related emergency. Americans take running water for granted, and we don’t realize our dependence on it until disaster strikes. State and federal agencies need to mandate regulations and inspections to prevent such a spill from reoccurring, and water supplies must update and maintain their ERPs. Because let’s face it: water is something that we simply cannot live without.