December 23, 2014 Leave a comment
Though West Virginia officials remain silent, Kanawha and Putnam County officials have conducted an instructive assessment
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On January 9, 2014, at about 10 a.m., fire departments in Kanawha County, the home to West Virginia’s state capital, where dispatched to two locations because reports of a “chemical odor” were being called in by citizens. It was at least four hours before emergency response officials realized they had a major public health crisis on their hands – the water for 300,000 people served by the Elk River was unsafe for human use.
It wasn’t until about 2 p.m. that Mike Dorsey, the emergency response coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, determined that the release of the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) at a site owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River had reached the water intake of the West Virginia American Water Company.
As disturbing as that incident was, what is equally disturbing is that the state of West Virginia has yet to publish an After Action Review, as promised by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin early last May. The delay is unconscionable. We do not know what lessons have been learned, so we can’t know what measures need to be taken to prevent such an event again. We do not know how to improve the response of appropriate agencies and organizations, and we don’t know what steps – if any – private industry has taken to improve their emergency operations plans.
While the event was certainly complex, Mountain State citizens have the right to expect that the report would have been concluded in a timely manner. It will be interesting to see if the report will be released before the anniversary in an effort to appease groups such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), which is planning a month-long focus based on the theme, “Water Unites Us!” Even if the report is published in the next couple of weeks, OVEC, other groups and all citizens should be skeptical, for the long delay suggests that political considerations may be hindering its release.
KPEPC After Action Report
In the interim, though, citizens can turn to the After Action Report (AAR) of the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee (KPEPC). The report, titled “West Virginia American Water Incident” was published Nov. 17. Kanawha and Putnam counties are two of the nine counties that were impacted by the spill. The two counties have a merged Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) that conducted a thorough review of nine capabilities of the KPEPC Emergency Management Plan (EOP) relevant to the spill. While the KPEPC is clear in stating that the AAR is not intended to be an overview of the whole event (as the state’s should be), it nonetheless offers solid insight into numerous lessons learned and corrective actions that should be taken.
The Executive Summary states, “On January 9, 2014 a leak of MCHM into the Elk River contaminated the drinking water for most of the residents of Kanawha and Putnam Counties. Both Kanawha and Putnam Counties activated their Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs). For approximately the next 30 days the EOCs were involved in commodity distribution.”
The AAR assessed the following nine capabilities:
2. Public Information and Warning
3. Operational Coordination
4. Environmental Response/Health and Safety
5. Mass Care Services
6. Public Health and Medical Services
7. On-scene Security and Protection
8. Public and Private Services and Resources
9. Community Resilience
The AAR also states, “The purpose of this report is to provide supportive corrective actions in relation to the KPEPC (Emergency Management) Plan. Our goal is to identify actions taken and to identify strengths to be maintained and built upon, identify potential areas for further improvement, and support implementation of corrective actions.”
According to the report, once initial responders traced the odor, “…Freedom Industries employees characterized the event as a small spill that was under control.” Later, however, Dorsey “called (the) Kanawha County Office of Emergency Management reporting that the spill was more than originally thought.”
It continues, “When representatives from Charleston and Kanawha County Offices of Emergency Management arrived they were told the spill was more significant and that product was entering the water.” A West Virginia American Water company representative initially “…stated they thought they would be able to treat the contaminated water by using extra activated carbon in the treatment process which had already been initiated.”
However, the report notes, “Freedom Industries employees could not or would not give an estimate of the amount of product released. Initially, Freedom Industries only reported that they had a leak of Crude MCHM. Several times over the course of the incident the estimated quantity of material leaked increased. In addition, it became clear that the material leaked also contained other chemicals besides MCHM.”
Not surprisingly, communications issues were identified. “One of the challenges of this incident was the role of social media in shaping public opinion,” notes the report. It continues, “This was both good and bad. While many agencies attempted to use social media to provide information to the public, there was a great deal of misinformation or completely false information.”
To address this challenge, the report concludes, “Agencies should develop internal policies and procedures for use of social media to relay critical information. In addition, agencies should consider assigning staff members to monitor social media and when misinformation or incorrect information is presented, to be ready to counter with correct information.”
It notes also, “An issue during this incident was that there were inconsistent messages. A Joint Information Center (JIC) should have been established. …All officials and personnel involved in an incident, regardless of their home jurisdiction or discipline must ensure that any public statement is coordinated, in advance, with the other members participating in Joint Information System.”
It adds, “During the incident various departments from within the WV state government were in charge of the Public Information component of the incident. It was not clear how county governments could be engaged in the process. There is the need, however, for a method to enable county agencies to be kept in the loop of critical information.”
There were also command and control issues. The report notes, “To maintain command and control it is critical that an incident command post be identified. According to the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Management Plan, the Incident Command Post is a facility or area from which the IC (Incident Commander) and command staff operates. Ideally, the Incident Command Post will be located in a safe area away from the incident scene, yet close enough that the command staff can still safely observe tactical operations. In this incident that was not a clear ICP.”
Hence, it recommends, “During future incidents, an ICP needs to be established early during the incident response.” It continues, “In addition to not having a clear Incident Command Post, it was not apparent who had been named the overall Incident Commander. At the same time, however, it is clear that this incident should have been operating under a Unified Command.” It adds, “During all emergencies/incidents ensure that an Incident Commander is clearly identified. When necessary establish a Unified Command structure to better integrate the response capabilities of all involved agencies.”
Confusion about MCHM was also a challenge. “During the initial response phase of the incident there was a lack of information and misinformation regarding Crude MCHM. Different agencies were using slightly different versions of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Crude MCHM. Even worse was that the MSDS lacked information related to human health threats associated with the product.”
The report’s writers were also critical of Freedom Industries. “One of the most challenging aspects of this incident from both a response and a public notification aspect is that Freedom Industries, Inc. was not reliable in their releasing information. During the first week or so of the incident the amount of chemical released changed multiple times. Then it was released that in addition to the Crude MCHM additional chemicals were leaked.”
The logistics of distributing water and others supplies presented challenges. “Many community organizations, volunteer fire departments, and governmental agencies were involved in the distribution of commodities during the incident. In most cases these sites stepped forward offering to provide assistance as water distribution locations.
“Some of the locations worked well and other presented challenges. Part of the selection process should include access and security considerations at each location.
“In the future, FEMA and the state are going to require the direct delivery of FEMA resources (i.e. trailer loads of water) directly to the distribution points. The practice will not allow for dropping trailers at a central location in the county and then relocating the trailers by county assets. FEMA wants the state to be responsible for all movement of the FEMA assets.”
The report recommends that emergency planners, “Develop a list of locations and contacts to potentially be used in future incidents. For each of the locations develop maps showing locations and provide directions.”
Also concerning was the impact upon vulnerable populations and the response of the public in general. “Public housing, assisted living, apartment complexes and other densely populated residential areas present many challenges…the residents in these buildings also have access or functional needs.”
Additionally, notes the report, “A great deal of money has been spent on educating the public on the importance of building self-sufficient for a minimum of 72 hours. Regardless of the amount of money thrown at the problem, the public does not comprehend or is unwilling to take any action.” Furthermore, “It was difficult to get the populous to start thinking about providing water on their own. Even when water was available in all of the stores and when the water was deemed safe, the population expected free water.”
Despite the many challenges and lessons learned, some positive capabilities were identified, including:
• Great support from community agencies. Local agencies provided manpower and resources to distribute over 15 million bottles of water;
• Support provided to the community by WV American Water;
• Cooperation between Federal, State, County and local agencies and businesses;
• Quick delivery of emergency supply of bottled and tanker loads of water by WV American Water within 4 hours;
• First arriving emergency supply of water by WV Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management within 30 hours; and
• Social media and flow of public information disseminated through the media.
The officials responsible for this report are to be commended for a thorough and transparent assessment. Hopefully, the State of West Virginia will follow their lead.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014. Barrick is a lead author for an upcoming book by Springer Publishing on disaster evacuations and is a member of a consortium of Emergency Management experts with West Virginia University, the University of Colorado-Denver, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of South Carolina. He holds a Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health and is the Safety Officer/Emergency Management Coordinator for Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital in Weston, W.Va. He writes from his home in Bridgeport, W.Va.
To learn more about the KPECP AAR, you can contact:
City of Charleston, Office of Emergency Management
Kanawha County Office of Emergency Management
Putnam County Office of Emergency Management
Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee
Larry Zuspan, Administrator
Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee
Dr. Matt Blackwood, Chair of the Board of Directors