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It is not hard to imagine the panic that
would have ensued and the voluntary evacuations
of the nine-county area that would
have taken place. It doesn’t matter that a hypothetical
compound is not very toxic. The
fact that everyone could detect its odor at
miniscule concentrations and that a shadowy
figure said that it was toxic would be enough
to instill terror.
Lessons Learned . . . or Not
In some ways, we were lucky this time. Hard
lessons were learned in the short-term, but the
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is no help at
all. If a spill event like this happens in the future,
will we again stitch together a patchwork
of private and public laboratories to identify the
organic chemical? Will we still not know what
is stored in the hundreds of thousands of tanks
upstream of drinking water intakes? Can we
provide a better database that has more complete
health effects data for CDC and other
health officials to use?
What should the water treatment plant do?
Replacement of the granular activated carbon
in the filters as soon as the spill event is over
seems like a good idea, but there are no guidelines.
Does the SDWA need to be revised to
provide that guidance? (A friend said that he
was shocked that a chemical storage tank was
upstream of a water treatment plant intake. I
patiently explained that there are hundreds of
thousands of storage tanks containing thousands
of chemicals upstream of thousands of
water treatment plant intakes. The water community
depends on the chemical firms keeping
their stuff in their tanks. Obviously, that
did not happen in West Virginia.)
All we have are questions. Some experts
have recommended that a database be created
to identify what chemicals are stored
in watersheds with their attendant odor
thresholds and toxicity data. That talk is being
turned into action. As the crisis atmosphere
fades, the impetus to fund such tools
has emerged from several sources. We must
do something to prepare for the next event,
or how can we explain our failure to the dad
who is trying to fix breakfast for his kids some
school-day morning in the future? S
1 McGuire, M.J., “Off-Flavor as the Consumer’s
Measure of Drinking Water Safety,” Water Science
& Technology, 31:11, pp. 1-8, 1995.
2 West Virginia Testing Assessment Project,
default.aspx (Accessed April 12, 2014).
3 McGuire, M.J., Rosen, J., Whelton, A.J. and Suf-
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