Two Years After Chemical Spill, Water Utilities Submit Protection Plans

Jul 1, 2016

Source water protection plans are mandates water utilities are required to follow to keep drinking water safe. However, before 2014, following these plans in West Virginia was voluntary. Since the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill, though, legislation was put in place requiring about 125 water systems in the state to have these plans. The law also made what was already on the books much stronger.

Friday, July 1 is the deadline for water and sewer utilities to submit their new plans to the state Bureau for Public Health. Liz McCormick has been following this story and brings us a look into how two utilities – large and small – have been dealing with the new regulatory landscape.

Source water protection plans in West Virginia aren’t anything new, water utilities across the state have been asked to have them for years. But after a coal cleaning chemical leaked into the Kanawha Valley water supply in 2014 leaving, 300,000 people without drinking water, state lawmakers decided to make a change. Senator John Unger headed up that process.

“And then when the chemical spill happened, and the water became a top issue again. Then this was a time that we needed to address protecting our water resources here from chemical contaminations,” Unger said.

The 2014 bill did two things – it changed the way aboveground storage tanks are regulated, and it required 125 water systems in West Virginia to create and implement source water protection plans.

The Harpers Ferry Water Works. It’s a small utility that serves drinking water to about 800 customers in Harpers Ferry, Bolivar, and the National Park Service. The utility doesn’t provide sewer service.

"This facility was built in 1985, so it’s pretty old, but it’s worked pretty well," said Josh Carter, the Water System Manager for the Harpers Ferry Water Works, "It’s a small operation, but it actually serves a whole lot of people.”

In fact, it’s the smallest water utility in Jefferson County falling under the new source water protection plan requirements. Those plans contain six things:  a management plan, a contingency plan, engineering details, an inventory of potential sources of significant contamination, a communication plan, and an early warning monitoring system.

For larger water utilities – like the Morgantown Utility Board which serves 25,000 customers – those requirements were easy to meet.

“You know the honest answer is, it’s as tough as the utility chooses to make it," explained Tim Ball, MUB's general manager, "We made it tough on ourselves. We imposed a high standard. We tried to include multiple scenarios, and we’ve committed to a level of preparedness that I’m pretty confident that most of the state has not committed to.”

MUB was the first water utility in the state to provide its new source water protection plan to the public for comment. But Ball’s feelings weren’t shared by every water system.

As lawmakers crafted those requirements in 2014, many small utilities cried out for help, saying the plans would be too expensive to draft and implement. So, the state is providing about two and a half million dollars for these smaller systems.

“The funding has been provided through a series of grants during 2015 and 2016 to assist in the development of various sections of the source water protection plans for about 116 of the 125 public water utilities,” said Rahul Gupta, the Commissioner for the state Bureau for Public Health.

Harpers Ferry Water Works was one of those 116 water utilities in the state that qualified for the aid. Still, Barbara Humes, Harpers Ferry’s water commissioner, says her town already had a source water protection plan in place dating back to 2011. She says updating for the 2014 requirements wasn’t as difficult as it could have been.

“It didn’t really scare us at all, it didn’t… All we had to do was dig through our data and develop a team,” Humes said.

Harper’s Ferry, the Morgantown Utility Board and 123 other water utilities are required to turn in their source water protection plans Friday. From there, the state Bureau for Public Health will review the plans and give them a final approval. But Rahul Gutpa says these documents won’t just be put away.

“It’s important to highlight that this is not a stale document that gets put on the shelf," he noted, "It’s a dynamic, living and breathing document.”

Utilities will be required to renew their source water protection plans in three years.