Pollution spills occur more often than you think. Usually, however, we only hear about the big ones like when three million gallons of acid mine waste spilled into the Animas River in New Mexico or when 7,500 gallons of MCHM discharged into the Elk River and shut down water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia. MCHM’s unknown toxicity ultimately affected the drinking water for 300,000 residents and the effects of the pollution in the Animas River are still being evaluated. Here on the Potomac, industrial spills are an uncommon occurrence because we harbor relatively few industrial type facilities.
Arguably our biggest issue on the Potomac is raw sewage overflows during rain events in our cities. But unlike sewage overflows, unexpected and accidental spills of an industrial pollution are unpredictable. On September 23, 2015 an estimated 10,000 gallons of a liquid latex chemical was spilled by the Verso Paper Plant in Luke, Maryland into the North Branch Potomac about 200 river miles from Washington D.C. The latex compound was being transferred to a storage tank inside the mill, where a valve was left open, which sent the latex through the Mill’s wastewater drainage system. Luckily, a local resident noticed the discoloration of the North Branch and alerted the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Upon notification, MDE collected water samples, contacted the Interstate Commission for the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and investigated the spill.
ICPRB spearheads important programs in water conservation, aquatic life research and water quality monitoring and plays a unique role during emergency spills. When a spill occurs, industrial or otherwise, ICPRB launches its Emergency River Spill Model (ERSM) which can predict the travel time of the spilled material creating the ability to advise and inform downstream public drinking water authorities.
Over five million people get their drinking water straight from the Potomac River. Using ERSM, ICPRB was able to notify all drinking water intake facilities downstream of Cumberland, MD with enough time to prepare before the latex chemicals reached them. Verso claimed there was no threat to drinking water in this incident, but if nothing else this incident demonstrated that the system does work during emergency situations.
The model relies on the interplay of many complicated factors, several of which came into play during this event including a release of water from the Savage River Reservoir shortly after the latex spill, and then nine days of rain. Both caused the latex spill to move faster than the model predicted. All the while our Upper Potomac Riverkeeper worked to ground truth the actual movement of the latex plume as it was moving down river. Our reports to MDE, local papers and on social media provided up-to-date location of the latex plume.
Fortunately, the chemicals in latex are not as toxic as other industrial chemicals in use along the Potomac River. There were no observed fish kills or immediate aquatic habitat impacts with this spill event and no one had to find alternative drinking water; however, there are some lessons learned. When dealing with industrial chemicals, it is absolutely critical to have secondary containment in case of an accident. In this instance, there was not. The latex spilled out of an open valve. Why was it not being monitored during transfer? This answer should come in the form of an up-to-date spill prevention plan onsite at every industrial site. The manual would also instruct authorities as to what level of damage control is required for each material handled by the facility.