Could a Once Polluted Section of the Kanawha River Be Used for Drinking Water?

Jul 1, 2014

Credit West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

There’s a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River that runs from the small town of Diamond, near Belle in southern Kanawha County, all the way to Point Pleasant where it flows into the Ohio River. Since 1980, this section—known as Zone 1 by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection—has been exempt from being classified as Category A. That exemption prevents that section of the Kanawha River from being used as a source for drinking water. 

More than 30 years ago, chemical plants were clustered along the Kanawha River across Zone 1. Today, the DEP says water quality across that stretch of the river has significantly improved, as many of those plants no longer remain. 

DEP Accepts Public Comment on Reclassifying Zone 1

On Tuesday, the DEP held a public hearing on a rule change proposal to lift the Category A exemption for Zone 1.

Representatives from the West Virginia Sustainable Business Council, the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, Citizens Actively Protecting the Environment, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and People Concerned About Chemical Safety spoke Tuesday evening in support of Zone 1's reclassification.

“We recognize the redesignation doesn’t automatically make the river safe to drink but we think it’s a step in the right direction towards a cleaner Kanawha River and it opens up the possibility for West Virginia American Water to propose a secondary intake,” said Julie Archer, who represented the West Virginia Citizens Action Group at Tuesday's hearing.

Archer, among others, referenced January's chemical spill at Freedom Industries that tainted the water supply of some 300,000 West Virginians across nine counties as highlighting the need for a secondary intake for West Virginia American Water. The utility company's only treatment plant sits downstream of the spill site along the Elk River.

Public comment on the matter will be accepted until July 21. The DEP plans to submit their proposed rule changes to the Secretary of State’s office on August 1. 

Citizens provide comment to the DEP's proposed rule changes on Tuesday, July 1, 2014. The proposed changes would lift an exemption on a section of the Kanawha River known as Zone 1 and would allow it to potentially be used as a source for drinking water.
Credit Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

While most of those in attendance spoke in support of the proposed change, Rebecca Randolph of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association argued against the DEP's proposal to lift the exemption, citing the cost to businesses for testing and complying with heightened standards.

“We submit that making changes to a provision that has been in water quality standards for decades—before it’s determined that such an option would even be feasible, either economically or technically—is clearly putting the cart before the horse in this case,” said Randolph.

Does West Virginia American Water Want A Secondary Intake?

Whether or not West Virginia American Water has interest in creating a secondary intake is another question altogether. 

Kevin Coyne of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management said movement on water company's end will take some time.

“That would be a process that they would have to do with the Bureau of Public Health. They would be more involved than we would necessarily be,” said Coyne.

“But, they would need to go through the analysis, look at the water quality of their intake, what’s coming in, what type of treatment they would need to do at that time. There’s a lot of steps involved from their aspect. But we are years away from getting this approved.”

Coyne said the proposed changes would have to be approved by the state legislature, as well as the federal-level Environmental Protection Agency.

In an email Thursday, West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the company doesn’t currently understand what water quality changes may allow for a reclassification of Zone 1. She says once the company understands corresponding data, they will factor that into their evaluation of backup water sources as part of their source water protection planning, as per the newly enacted Senate Bill 373.

The bill requires existing public water utilities to create protection plans by July 1, 2016.