Looking for a solution after last year's water saga

By B.J. Garner | Jan 20, 2015

CHARLESTON – A little more than a year ago, on Jan. 8, our 9 year-old granddaughter Emma took a sip of water at our table and immediately complained, “This water tastes funny!”

We didn’t take much notice, but next day the news media reported a major chemical spill into the Elk River, contaminating the West Virginia-American Water Company water supply serving 300,000 citizens in nine counties.

The MCHM spill quickly morphed into one of the most traumatic public events in decades. A “Do Not Use” advisory was quickly issued, and while there were no fatalities, not a single person in the system was unaffected. Freedom Industries, under control of a new owner as of year-end 2013, filed for bankruptcy and employed an experienced crises manager, approved by the Federal Bankruptcy Court, to manage and staff the site 24/7. Dozens of lawsuits were filed and are still pending. The national image of West Virginia continues to be tarnished.

How do we end this nightmare? I recently accepted an opportunity to tour the Freedom Site to observe the progress first hand. In fact, the changes are quite impressive and much has been accomplished. The offending tanks and topsoil were removed, runoff drains are in place, and tainted water is being trucked to Ohio at a cost of $3,500/load.

Surface water runoff at 50 parts per million (ppm) MCHM has diminished 25-fold to less than 2 ppm today - about 8 to 15 ounces of MCHM per week.

For perspective, surface runoff from 2 acres at 2 ppm MCHM is equivalent to 1.5 ounces per 5,000 gallon truck. Disposal cost of $2,300/ounce for an essentially non-hazardous material is not only absurdly expensive, it will eventually be paid at taxpayer expense.

As previously reported, MCHM and related components are relatively simple hydrocarbons chemically similar to household detergent. And, although odor threshold is incredibly low, MCHM is relatively non-toxic. The only other site chemicals were glycerin and calcium carbonate, both common and both innocuous.

Legal fallout will continue for years, but aside from that, the unsettled site issue is a public blight for the state and community and ongoing costs are prohibitive.

Where do we go from here? Perhaps it’s time to consider a more lasting solution.

Three rather obvious engineering alternatives may be defined for closing the pollution issue and returning to normal:

A. Accept Current Level of Remediation:

The simplest is to accept the current remediation. Site surface water runoff enters and is diluted by normal flow of the Elk River.

Normal Elk River water flow (USGS report) of 2,650 cubic feet per second (14,000 million lbs/day) will dilute the MCHM runoff to 0.06 micro-gms/L (0.06 ppb), well below the detectable limit. At minimum flow, 2 ppm MCHM is diluted to 0.11 micro-gms/L, also below the detectable limit.

River mixing will vary, but the small amount of MCHM is such that concentration at the WVAWC intake will likely remain undetectable. MCHM in the runoff continues to diminish as MCHM leaches from the soil.

As further assurance, the WVAWC inlet is protected by 500 tons of activated carbon, which typically adsorbs hydrocarbons to at least 5 to 10% of bed weight. At 5%, these beds are theoretically capable of adsorbing the entire 2 ppm of runoff for more than a century.

Precise analytical techniques are now well established and capable of detecting trace amounts. A simple trial will easily establish proof. Continued monitoring of WVAWC’s intake is recommended in any case.

Case B: Biological Treatment by Charleston Sanitary Board (CSB)

The public may object to allowing site runoff into the Elk, no matter how insignificant. In that case, a quite viable alternative exists that should be acceptable to the strictest critics.

Hydrocarbons like MCHM are consumed by biological treatment. A short-term test on May 26 was reported where site runoff was fed to the sanitary sewer. No MCHM was detected in the CSB outfall.

Temporary routing of filtered runoff to a nearby sanitary sewer requires right-of-way permitting plus 100 yards of 4-inch PVC pipe. Thus, all residual MCHM runoff may be easily disposed through biological treatment. As noted below, CSB treatment should be temporary only until the Freedom site is sold and paved over.

The effect on CSB plant throughput is minor. Site runoff, for example, fed by a 1-inch rainfall adds only 0.2% to CSB hydraulic throughput. At the extreme, a rare rainfall of 5-inches adds only 0.95% to CSB throughput for that one day.

Further, even if the entire MCHM site runoff overflows without treatment to the Kanawha River (avg. 35 billion lbs water/day), the resulting dilution of 0.02 parts-per-Billion is negligible – only 0.01 drops per 5,000 gallon truck. With treatment, MCHM in the river effectively vanishes.

Case C: Sell to Commercial Enterprise That Paves the Site.

Site remediation is currently managed under a WVDEP-mandated “Consent Order.” Once state conditions are met, the state may agree to a change to VRP, or “Voluntary Remediation Program” status. VRP allows the property to be sold or used provided stringent monitoring limits are met. It cannot be sold under the current mandate.

The ultimate solution is to sell the property to a commercial enterprise, required as a condition of sale to pave the affected area. New business is thus brought to the community and the site runoff issue disappears – a perfect “Win-Win” for all.

In conclusion, the evidence strongly supports resolution of the pollution issue and returning the site and community to normal. Three easily implemented remedies are available, and all three are consistent with entry to the WVDEP “Voluntary Remediation Program.” Multiple buyers are reportedly ready for purchase, the best option of all, but progression to VRP is a necessary first step to begin the process.

Garner, a Charleston resident, is a retired engineer with 35 years experience. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in industrial hygiene.

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