Panic shook West Virginia this month after a dangerous chemical tainted water supplies. The incident has caused some Ohioans to worry about the chemical spreading to the Buckeye State, however, Central Ohio water sources should be safe from contamination, authorities said.
Authorities learned of the chemical leak after West Virginia residents complained of a strange smell coming from the water supplies in their area drawn from the Elk River in early January.
Some Ohio State students were concerned the proximity of the Ohio River and the recent odor of Columbus water were linked to the West Virginia chemical spill.
Santoria Sawyer, a fourth-year in human development and family science, said she immediately thought of the West Virginia crisis when she drank water from a drinking fountain in the Ohio Union.
“I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I wonder if the water is contaminated here, too.’ I never would’ve thought that if I hadn’t heard about West Virginia,” she said.
The musty taste and odor of Columbus water, however, is not a result of the chemical spill. It is instead a result of an algal bloom in Hoover Reservoir and is non-toxic, city authorities said.
Erin Strouse, spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email Columbus “doesn’t pull water from the Ohio River” where chemicals were expected to flowed downstream from the impacted West Virginia rivers.
Columbus is in a better position to prevent situations like the West Virginia water crisis, said Laura Young Mohr, spokeswoman for the city’s utilities department, because Columbus has incorporated extensive planning and evolved its water system processes in order to prepare for any future challenges.
The city uses surface water sources — including the Scioto River and Big Walnut Creek — and can access south Columbus well-fields.
“We don’t have all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, on water supplies,” Mohr said.
In addition, Columbus has three water plants (Hap Cremean, Dublin Road and Parsons Avenue) and the ability to redirect the water in the distribution system through valves if any particular source proves dangerous. The city also has permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use Alum Creek in Delaware County and pump its water to Hoover Reservoir when needed, she said.
“Having the three different plants using three different sources makes us a very strong water system in terms of planning for any type of disruption that might occur,” Mohr said.
Unlike West Virginia American Water, the water company affected by the chemical spill, one of Columbus’ multiple plants does not use surface water at all, and instead depends on well-fields, Mohr said.
In the “very unlikely event” that all water sources were not fit for consumption, however, Mohr said the city would be required to notify the public.
Although Columbus has not faced dangerous chemicals or had to notify the public of any risks, West Virginia officials were required to send out warnings to avoid drinking, cooking or washing with the water earlier this month.
The chemical crisis began Jan. 9 when residents of Kanawha County reported a strange odor in the air, according to multiple sources.
The chemical spill resulted from an overflow in the area around a 35,000-gallon tank containing chemicals used to clean coal. These chemicals then traveled through the soil to the nearby Elk River.
The leak occurred approximately a mile away from the West Virginia American Water plant.
Many individuals have criticized West Virginia’s public utilities emergency response plan. In Columbus, emergency response or contingency plans are a practiced part of city water providers, Mohr said.
“We maintain emergency contingency plans for different kinds of scenarios and our staff participates in practice drills on those plans periodically,” she said.
Mohr said, though, Columbus has not tested for the chemical that has affected the water of many West Virginians, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — more commonly called MCHM — because “there is no known reason to.”
“It was noted to me that there are 85,000 industrial chemicals out there and it would be impossible to test for all of them. Ohio EPA sets the list of possible contaminants that are likely to be present in an area, with that one not being one of them,” she said.
Although MCHM is not expected to affect Ohioans, Strouse said, “the Ohio EPA is in communication with drinking water operators along the Ohio River, and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
Although Katie Connolly, a third-year in environmental science, said she had not heard about the spill, she said she still trusts the safety of Columbus’ water overall.
“A lot of the classes I take talk about water safety, laws and regulations,” she said. “I really prefer city water over bottled water because city water is much more heavily regulated.”
For future safety, Columbus officials request residents take an active role in the safety of their water systems.
“If residents ever see something they suspect as a spill going into any local waterway, they should report it,” Mohr said.
Cities such as Columbus will continue to test water sources daily and use contingency plans to address potential sources of contamination, Strouse said.
“Thankfully, no impacts are anticipated to users of (Columbus) systems,” Strouse said.