Area EMA Directors Say They’re Ready

WHEELING – If a chemical spill happened on the Ohio River, the city of Wheeling’s intake valves would be closed as soon as possible, a city official said.

And local emergency managers said Friday they already have emergency action plans in place to deal with a variety of disasters – including potential chemical spills like the one that occurred on the Elk River.

On Thursday, between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons of a chemical used in coal preparation spilled into the Elk River in the Charleston area, effecting nine different West Virginia counties. Thousands of people have been told not to drink tap water until the situation is resolved. None of those counties are in the Northern Panhandle.

Russell Jebbia, Wheeling Public Works director, said if a spill occurred on the Ohio River, the city’s water intake valves would be closed as soon as the city became aware of it.

“We would shut the plant down to prevent it coming into the system. Our first priority would be to isolate ourselves,” Jebbia said.

During the 1988 Ashland Oil Co. spill that impacted the Ohio River and left 1 million people without water, the city had plenty of notice and prepared in advance, he said. Waterlines were run from Bridgeport and Martins Ferry’s plants, which both use well water, across bridges to Wheeling. Water from Wheeling Creek also was piped onto barges and shipped to the plant to be treated. After the Ashland disaster, Jebbia said the city decided to drill four of its own water wells, which are still used today. The well water is periodically blended with river water.

“Back then we were dependent on river water,” Jebbia said, noting the wells only provide 45 percent of what would be needed. “Some water we could get from wells, and we have storage tanks with 14 million gallons in reserve that would last two days.”

The plant pumps out 7.3 million gallons daily.

“We would conserve until the spill passes us. One advantage here on the Ohio River, I think 2 billion gallons of water an hour passes our plant at normal pool level – that’s a lot of water flow,” Jebbia said.

He said if the spill was closer to the plant it may be more concentrated, but it would also pass by faster. If the plant did become contaminated, water samples would be taken to determine how much of the system needed flushed out.

Lou Vargo, Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency director, said if a chemical spill happened in Ohio County, officials here would respond much like officials in Charleston. Vargo said Ohio County has emergency action plans for a variety of potential disasters including those involving industry. For example, when the planned GreenHunter frack water recycling plant comes online in Warwood, the EMA will develop an action plan for that facility as well.

GreenHunter officials could not be reached for comment.

“With GreenHunter we will work with Fire Chief Larry Helms and Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger to come up with an action plan for that plant. We did the same with Tunnel Ridge. We have an extensive plan for a disaster at that coal mine,” Vargo said.

The Emergency Operations Center in the basement of the City-County Building is where departments come together to form an action plan for an emergency, he added.

In Charleston, there were reports of some eateries still serving people Thursday night, but closing once they received word about the spill. Vargo said in Ohio County all means of communication would be used to get the word out about a spill or drinking water issues. Ohio County also uses an automated phone alert system to call people with messages about incidents.

Tom Hart, Marshall County Office of Emergency Services director, said he learned about the Elk River spill Thursday evening. Much like Ohio County, Hart said Marshall County’s response would be similar to how the situation is being handled in Charleston.

“What a mess down there. … We were actually getting inquires from local folks who have family members in the Kanawha Valley who are concerned about the situation,” Hart said.

Hart said in Marshall County there are wells along the Ohio River, but no water intakes.

“We are required to have an all-hazards emergency operations plan. We’re required to maintain that and are required to update it on annual basis. This past fall we issued a new emergency operations plan. It deals with all hazards,” Hart said.

Hart said in the southern part of his county there are two larger industrial facilities, Axiall and Bayer.

“It wouldn’t be a single-agency response. It would be a multi-agency effort. This morning we had a statewide conference call about this. There is no time frame as to how long it will be. They’re trying to keep everybody in the state briefed in case they need resources from out of the area,” Hart said.

Hart said once the situation is resolved, it will become a learning tool for the rest of the state.

“That’s why we see local and state and federal agencies tell people to be prepared by having a three-day supply of water for everyone in the home,” Hart said.

Hart said the recommended amount of water to have on hand is a gallon per person per day. Water for pets also should be saved.