Chemical Spill Reaction Critical

Fewer than a dozen people were hospitalized after becoming ill because they drank water polluted in a Kanawha Valley chemical spill, it has been reported. None of them is expected to suffer long-term harm from the experience.

It could have been much, much worse. The chemical that leaked into the Elk River last week is toxic enough to cause nausea, headaches, skin rashes and other relatively minor problems – but not death. Had the substance been something else, victims might have gone to funeral homes instead of emergency rooms.

By Monday, state officials said the concentration of the chemical in the Elk River had dropped dramatically. That was good news for the about 300,000 people whose treated water comes from the river. They had been warned for several days not to consume the water.

Several communities in the Ohio Valley draw all or part of their drinking water from the Ohio River. What would happen if a chemical leaked into that stream?

That has happened in the past. The standard drill is for municipal water intake valves to be closed until dangerous concentrations of the chemical have flowed downstream.

Such a strategy works just fine when water treatment systems are notified in advance of a hazardous chemical in the river. But in Kanawha County, it appears the first indication something was wrong was when some residents there noticed a strange odor in the air and the West Virginia American Water company detected a problem. By that time, contaminated water already was in the distribution system.

Public water treatment systems in our area have emergency plans for dealing with contamination. However, the Kanawha County disaster is a reminder that such plans need to be re-examined regularly and that personnel need to be drilled on implementing them. It also is a wake-up call concerning what water treatment personnel know about potentially hazardous chemicals that may leak into the river.

The disaster in southern West Virginia could have been much, much worse. Had the leaked chemical been more dangerous, the response by water treatment officials and technicians could have made the difference between life and death for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Here in the Ohio Valley, public water system administrators should do everything in their power to ensure that if a similar situation occurs here, the right decisions will be made as quickly as possible.