What does ICPRB do to address toxic spill threats?

On February 16, a train including tank cars carrying crude oil derailed with some of the cars dropping into the Kanawha River in West Virginia. Although not in the Potomac basin, this event is a reminder that accidental spills of toxic materials are an ever present risk to human health and the environment. Of particular concern are events that threaten drinking water. In the metro Washington area, 75% of drinking water comes from the Potomac River. Across the basin there are 77 public water supply systems with surface water intakes. When spills occur, local emergency responders, state emergency management agencies, and federal agencies mobilize quickly to protect public health and minimize environmental impacts. For spills into the Potomac River and its major tributaries, ICPRB has a role in emergency response and on a continuing basis works with other agencies to maintain and even improve preparedness.

Spill Emergency Response

When notified of a spill ICPRB’s emergency response role is to alert downstream water utilities and water management agencies that a spill has occurred. Using ICPRB’s Emergency River Spill Model, the staff calculates contaminant concentrations and travel times to water intakes and share that information with the utilities and agencies.  The spill model can calculate travel times for the Potomac River mainstem from Cumberland to Little Falls, plus the Shenandoah, South Branch Potomac, and Monocacy rivers, and Antietam and Conococheague creeks. Staff members are trained to run the spill model and carry out our spill communication procedures and they share responsibility for responding to an event at any time. Every year, spill events occur that turn out to be insignificant threats to water supply but provide regular opportunities for practicing our spill response procedures.

Spill Protection Planning

ICPRB is working with government agencies and utilities to improve our knowledge of spill risks and improve preparedness for spill events. The work is generally under the umbrella of the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership (DWSPP). ICPRB collaborated with other agencies in planning and executing spill exercises in 2008, 2012, and an upcoming exercise in June of this year. With each of these exercises the participating agencies gain a better understanding of the threats and identify gaps in response procedures that need to be addressed.

Prompted by a series of spill events in early 2014 (storage tank failure in Charleston, West Virginia; train derailment into the James River, Virginia; coal ash release into the Dan River, North Carolina), ICPRB began discussions with EPA Region 3 about updating the District of Columbia Source Water Assessment Plan (D.C. SWAP). A new D.C. SWAP has relevance to the entire Potomac basin upstream of Washington because the entire watershed is D.C.’s source water area and an inventory of threats to D.C. water supply can provide an inventory of threats to other water utilities in the basin. At the quarterly DWSPP meeting on February 24, the EPA representative said they hope the new DC SWAP will be “a model SWAP” for the nation.

Also in 2014, but on a separate track, the MWCOG received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to undertake a variety of water security tasks, including an inventory of spill threats to drinking water for the metro Washington area. ICPRB and DWSPP participate in the planning for both projects.

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