A little history, a lot of concern about water safety

An editorial from the Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” recently became the unofficial slogan for some 300,000 residents served by West Virignia American Water in the Greater Charleston metropolitan area and the adjacent counties that surround it.

Charleston not only serves as the state’s capital city, but lies in the heart of the Kanawha Valley, which has been appropriately called the “Chemical Valley of the World.” For decades, Charleston residents have learned to live with funky smells, chemical leaks and the ever-present threat of a chemical disaster on a larger scale.

The Kanawha Valley has been home to such chemical giants as Union Carbide, DuPont, Monsanto, FMC and others that provided the local economy with thousands of good-paying jobs with benefits for chemical workers — and even better-paying jobs for those with engineering and advanced scientific degrees.

The Kanawha River was a cesspool that for decades served as an open dumping ground for discarded chemicals of all types. Residents dared not swim in the river, and anglers knew not to eat the fish.

That all began to change in the early 1980s as chemical companies were forced to comply with new federal and state regulations intended to protect our air and water.

Such regulations covered not only the manufacture of chemicals, but their storage in underground tanks, as well as transportation by rail, barge and tanker trucks. Emergency preparedness plans were required and reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The result was cleaner air and cleaner water — and residents could once again utilize the Kanawha River for various water-related activities. But most people still dared not eat the fish.

During the late 1970s, West Virginia American Water began buying up municipal water treatment facilities and constructing a massive new water treatment facility in the middle of Charleston on the banks of the Elk River, thus providing much of the region with a better-quality raw water source free from trace chemical residues.

All was good. That is until two weeks ago, on Jan. 9, when a chemical used as a foaming agent during the processing of coal, an estimated 7,000 gallons of concentrated base out of an aging aboveground storage tank, leaked through itís secondary containment system and into the Elk River — just one and a half miles upstream from the intake for the West Virginia American Water System facility that serves some 300,000 people.

Disaster had struck. It was several hours before the chemical leak was detected, and the water system was already compromised…

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