January 17, 2014
The chemical leak at Freedom Industries that left 300,000 people without water in West Virginia brings up questions in other states, like Pennsylvania, about the possibility of other water contamination catastrophes. There have been spills into Pennsylvania waterways before, and regulators say those incidents have led to more strict laws here. Regulators say a spill is less likely here than in West Virginia, but clean water advocates aren't so sure.
“On one end of the island is the water intake, on the other end is the neighborhood," says Cassi Steenblok with Clean Water Action.
The water intake and treatment plant she mentioned sits In the midst of the chemical facilities. It pulls from the Ohio River to provide 200 thousand people with water.
Standing across the street from large chemical storage tanks, Steenblok worries that a leak here could cause problems similar to last week’s spill in West Virginia.
“We would see the problems here. There would be water pollution into the Ohio, there would be the effects of the families here. So this is a place where you can see the effects of how this can happen anywhere, and to anyone, and it can happen here in Pittsburgh,” says Steenblok.
State regulators agree.
“Releases certainly can happen anywhere, regardless of the regulations that are in place," says Kris Schiffer of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Schiffer is with the Division of Storage Tanks. Storage tanks have their own division in Pennsylvania.
“We do regulate the tanks, we do have emergency containment requirements, we do have monitoring requirements.”
Schiffer says these provisions came about after hard experience, like one spill in 1988. In that accident, a storage tank collapsed, releasing more than a half million gallons of oil into the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. Twenty-three thousand people went without tap water for about a week.
Environmental officials in West Virginia say before last week’s spill, there hadn’t been an inspection at the Freedom Industries plant in more than twenty years. In Pennsylvania, Schiffer says a tank like that would be inspected every five years.
“A qualified inspector actually goes inside the tanks and takes readings, thickness readings, the tank bottom, to make sure there aren’t any corrosion holes beginning to develop. So we have all those measures in place that West Virginia didn’t necessarily have.”
But not everyone thinks the Pennsylvania program is working. Myron Arnowitt is director of Clean Water Action. He cites the DEP’s own statistics, which confirm about 15-hundred leaks and spills from above and underground chemical storage tanks in the past five years. Most of those were minor, but he’s still concerned.
“We’re talking about a lot of problems going on out there. Tanks are leaking, they’re causing problems that need to be cleaned up, and there just isn’t good compliance with the rules that are written down to protect the public.”
Another major issue from the West Virginia spill has been location. The Freedom Industries chemical storage was 1.5 miles upstream of where the water treatment plant intakes drinking water. Everyone from water quality experts to comedian Jon Stewart have criticized this set up.
On Neville Island, the drinking water intake is in the center of the industrial zone, but leaders there say there’s enough water quality monitoring to shut down intake if there’s a spill. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has also created a monitoring network in recent years, to identify problems early, and react accordingly.
State emergency management officials did not respond to an interview request for this story. But Allegheny County emergency management has been coordinating plans with industry leaders, public officials and citizens to prepare for emergencies like this.
Despite all these efforts, some look at the catastrophe in West Virginia, and ask themselves if it didn’t happen in Pennsylvania because of planning and regulations, or because of luck.
Reid Frazier contributed reporting to this story.