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Can WVa’s Water Crisis Happen in Ga.?

January 28, 2014

If you asked folks from Charleston, West Virginia what the price of clean water is, they’d probably say priceless.  More than 300,000 customers of the publically-traded West Virginia American Water Co. (NYSE: AWK) were told on January 9, 2014 the only thing they could do with the water piped to their homes, restaurants, businesses and hotels was to flush it.  No drinking; no bathing children; no clothes washing; no hand washing after using the bathroom.  For six to ten days depending on where a customer lived.

The Governor declared a state of emergency.  The water crisis also delayed the opening day of the state’s legislative assembly, which according to this excellent New York Times story has worked hard over the years to deregulate the state’s natural resource agencies to benefit the coal industry.

Can West Virginia’s water crisis happen in Georgia?  While Georgians might think it can’t, unfortunately, it already has on at more than one occasion.

Georgia state legislators have choices right now to avoid future clean water crises.  The first would be to step away from SB 299 – a bill that would roll back safe drinking water protections.  SB 299 will negatively affect any surface water steam that provides public drinking water supplies.

And the second choice would benefit from a little history to elicit support for HB 549. This bill will require Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to maintain a robust emergency response program, require appropriate and timely responses to emergencies that threaten the state’s waters, and require proper public notification and coordination between the state and local communities to protect the health of our families during emergencies.

Why couldn’t West Virginian’s drink, bathe or cook with the water in their homes and businesses?  At least 7,500 gallons of two chemicals used by the coal-industry escaped from Freedom Industries’ tank farm and property, sullying the Elk River only 1.5 miles upstream from American Water’s drinking water treatment plant intake.  According to some customers, the water coming from taps smelled like licorice and was colored.  According to the Charleston Gazette, American Water is already facing lawsuits and Freedom Industry has filed for bankruptcy.  And as one columnist asked: “Why wasn’t there a plan” to respond to a spill emergency?

In a story that should sound familiar to some Georgians, West Virginia’s emergency response was bungled.  The Water Company and the chemical company had never coordinated how they might respond to an emergency.  And the Material Data Safety Sheet – an industry standard information source – provided insufficient information.  For example, nobody – not even the Environmental Protection Agency or the Centers for Disease Control – could say with certainty what level of chemical exposure an individual could safely withstand.  Hundreds of people sought medical treatment.  It took almost six hours before the order not to drink or touch tap water was issued.

A number of recent spills and threats to clean water in Georgia demonstrate the need for robust laws, regulation and emergency response.

In July 2010, the J & J Chemical warehouse went up in flames.  According to this story, the company may not have been in compliance with Department of Homeland Security.  Perhaps if the fire crew had been fully aware of what was contained within the structure, they would not have poured 700,000 gallons of water on the fire, flushing blue dye, formaldehyde and para-dichlorobenzene into Trail Creek, where all aquatic wildlife was killed, and then into the Oconee River.  Because local and state officials could not coordinate fast enough, citizens took the lead and posted signs to warn their neighbors about the spill.

And no state or industrial officials contacted the City of Waynesboro after an October 2011 spill in the heart of kaolin country threatened the municipality’s drinking water intake.

Even more recently in late 2013, the City of Thomaston shut their water intakes down days after a citizen informed the mayor of a spill and fish kill in a Potato Creek tributary.  Georgia EPD has now linked the spill-kill to Jordan Forest Products, LLC and levied a $10,000 fine on January 8, 2014.

And there is the infamous Ogeechee story: King America Finishing (KAF) maintained an unpermitted discharge into the river for five years, which was a violation of the Clean Water Act.  Drought and low flows of May 2011 (and again in 2012) caught up to the company when more than 38,000 fish died just before Memorial Day weekend.  EPD spent seventeen hours trying to contact the company and local public health officials ‘closed’ the river because they could not get information.

After three years of litigation and EPD’s mis-steps, one chapter comes to a close.  In November 2013, EPD issued KAF’s new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) to cover all discharge lines and finalized a consent order requiring KAF to spend $1.3M on additional restoration projects.  In mid-January 2014, KAF and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK) finalized a settlement to benefit the river.  KAF will pay ORK $2.5M to fund river protection, and KAF will begin publically posting its monitoring data.  The settlement and NPDES permit are unprecedented in Georgia, according to EPD.

The history of the Ogeechee, Trail Creek, Potato Creek and Briar Creek – and of course West Virginia’s Elk River situation – should remind everybody why clean water and protecting it matters.  If we cannot protect the clean water we need to drink or bathe, our communities cannot thrive and our economies are threatened.

Georgia’s law makers and regulators should support HB 549 so what happened in West Virginia does not happen here (again).

-Chris Manganiello

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2014 10:59 pm

    Hello! I know this is kinda off topic but I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa?
    My blog discusses a lot of the same topics as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit
    from each other. If you happen to be interested feel free to shoot
    me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Wonderful blog by the way!


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