MONDAY EVENING UPDATE:
Several media outlets — and some private emails — indicate some areas of the Kanawha Valley are being told their tap water is again safe to consume. Different areas are being “cleared” in a step-by-step process of flushing and multiple-testing.
Last week an unknown amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (one estimate referenced 5000 gallons, another estimate is 7500 gallons). About one mile downstream from the discharge is the intake for a water system serving most of nine counties and up to 300,000 persons.
By Thursday evening a “Do Not Use” order was announced. Water customers were instructed to avoid bodily contact with tap water. Water has continued to flow for sanitation and firefighting (and to flush the system).
Even 24 hours after the spill the contamination risk was not well-understood. While not thought to be toxic, the chemical can cause irritation of the eyes and skin. Ingestion could cause nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and liver damage.
The chemical is known to be harmful in concentrations of 500 parts per million. By Friday evening levels of the chemical’s concentration in the Elk River near the water intakes had dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million. On Saturday it was announced the “Do Not Use” order would not be lifted until a comprehensive testing process found concentrations of less than 1 ppm throughout the Kanawha Valley water network. On Monday morning several spot-checks are reporting levels below 1 ppm.
The water network involves over 100 storage tanks and 1700 miles of pipeline. On Saturday the water company explained, “Concentric flushing beginning at a central location and moving out to the far ends of the distribution system is expected to take several days but will not be simultaneous based upon the construction of the system. The timeline may vary based on geographic location, customer demand and other factors that impact water usage and availability.”
Retail supplies of bottled water quickly sold out on Thursday night and Friday. But by Saturday most stores had been resupplied and some major retailers were providing customers water at no charge. Several public distribution locations had also been established. FEMA has shipped over 1.5 million liters into West Virginia. Proactive efforts are being made to ensure drinking water distribution to the elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable populations. Both private and public supply chains will continue to surge water into the greater Charleston area.
This is a still developing situation. Lots of lessons — and pseudo-lessons — are likely to emerge. With appropriate trepidation, let’s begin to gather some observations and hypotheses.
Prevention and Mitigation
In my personal experience secondary-effects on water systems are especially consequential. I have seen urban areas emerge from a detailed analysis of a nuclear detonation in what seemed a survivable condition only to have the water system fail and unwind an entire region.
As with many — most — modern systems of supply urban water systems are nodal networks. These networks are innately more efficient on good days and innately predisposed to catastrophic cascades on bad days. Trouble at any node is likely to propagate to other nodes. The nodes — electrical, logistical, water, whatever — are especially susceptible to no-notice concentration stresses. (This is what is currently speculated to have happened at the UPS Worldport on the weekend before Christmas causing one of the best supply chains in the world to nearly collapse.)
A significant aspect of the problem in West Virginia is that the — largely unknown — chemical was released in considerable quantity so close to the node. There was not sufficient time-and-space for dilution to do its magic before the whole system was contaminated. Electrical, computing, fuel, and other networks are vulnerable to analogous risk.
West Virginia is on the edge of four regional supply chain networks. This is so rough to be at least a bit misleading, but think of large circles radiating out from Washington-Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Charlotte/Roanoke. Depending on the commodity or sector, these circles overlap in West Virginia.
I expect — but it is only an informed guess — that the spike in demand signals began emerging after Thursday orders and Friday morning deliveries were processed. So it took until Friday morning to seriously engage the unexpected explosion in demand. Then it was late Friday or early Saturday before sufficient commercial stocks of bottled water could be redirected into the network.
Again just an informed guess, but Kroger, Walmart, Sysco, and McLane are probably the principal distributors of bottled water in West Virginia. They will also be the principal sources for sanitizers, baby wipes, paper plates, and related products For players this size, there is an existing strategic capacity to surge supply. While 300,000 with a no-notice loss of drinking water is non-trivial it does not exhaust capacity… especially because this is on the edge of four regional supply networks, each with very deep resources. The challenge is more an issue of transport than supply. So… by Saturday the commercial supply chain was aware of the problem, reorganizing to supply the problem, and largely successful doing so.
Provision of water by local fire departments, state emergency resources, and FEMA is a crucially important complement to the commercial supply chains. Red Cross, churches and similar organizations are especially important to filling the demand-and-supply gap for non-mobile populations.
My off-the-cuff analysis would not be nearly so benign if a similar event hit a much more densely populated area that was served by a less diverse supply chain.
Contamination events are especially challenging. How do you prove a negative? Rumors will fly faster than facts. Bottled water is going to be more popular in the Kanawha Valley than ever before, enjoying sustained demand long after chemical concentrations fall below 1 part per million.
Nodes are important here too. What and who are the psycho-social nodes in this (these) communities? What relationships have already been established? How can those relationships be energized in this instance to deal with this issue? Will these communities respond as victims, as survivors, as heroes? And what, in retrospect, will they decide to learn?
One of my West Virginia friends who contributed to this report offered, “Tell your readers that if they want to help they need to plan their next vacation or convention for Charleston.” Basic human needs are being addressed, but the long-term economic consequences will be very troubling.
Much more to come. This crisis continues. But in any case, Coleridge was right:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink….
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner