When a chemical spill contaminated the water supply for thousands of West Virginians, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at West Virginia University quickly sought – and received – a National Science Foundation grant to collect and analyze samples with an eye to ensuring such hazards do not turn into disasters.
"There is a dire need to assess the extent of contamination in both drinking water and riverine systems in order to take proper immediate measures to remediate the contamination and devise intelligent strategies to handle such disasters in the future," said Jennifer Weidhaas, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in WVU's Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.
About 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, plus about 300 gallons of a second chemical – PPH, a mixture of polyglycol ethers – leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9 from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The site is about a mile upstream from a West Virginia American Water Co. treatment facility providing water to about 300,000 people. Residents in parts of nine counties were warned to not use their water for days, and distribution of bottled water continued through Jan. 27.
The grant "will help our faculty to develop more comprehensive, interdisciplinary and innovative research approaches that could, for example, lead to cost-effective, remote, and largely autonomous cyber physical systems monitoring of infrastructures that would protect our water supplies from such chemical contamination," said Pradeep Fulay, Statler College's associate dean for research.
"We also hope that technologies that could make use of chemicals/surfactants that are environmentally more friendly could be developed so as to minimize the impact on the availability of fresh water resources," he said.
The $50,000 grant comes from the NSF's Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems division's Environmental Engineering program.
"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything," said NSF Program Director William Cooper. "RAPID grants give researchers the support they need to be on the ground and to collect data immediately."
Little is known about the extent of the contamination and potential risks to public health and the environment, so under the NSF grant, WVU scientists immediately traveled to the area to begin sampling the water to determine concentrations of the chemical in the water, how effective flushing the chemical from home systems is and how to prevent an incident in the future.
"Ultimately, the purpose is to develop more resilient water infrastructure systems and enhance our ability to respond to these types of disasters in a timely manner to that the human health and environmental impact is minimized," Weidhaas said.
The research team will be led by Weidhaas and Lian-Shin Lin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Collaborators are James Anderson, director of the Environmental Research Center, housed in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design; Leslie Hopkinson, hydraulics/hydrology; Antarpreet Jutla, hydroepidemology; Radhey Sharma, sediment pollution; Kung Wang, organic chemistry in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences; Stuart Welsh, fish and wildlife services; and Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. Sample and data collection will be coordinated with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Bureau for Public Health.
Intensive sampling efforts have already begun and will continue daily at the affected water treatment plant and various locations of the water distribution system, including cold water taps, water fountains and hot water systems of public buildings such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, hotels and gas stations. Exterior water spigots at private residences will also be sampled
"In addition, water and sediment samples will be collected at various locations of the Elk River including near the water intake structure," Lin said. "Given the chemical properties of MCHM, samples at both the river surface and different depths will be collected."
Sampling frequencies will continue for an extended period of time to be determined after the results from the initial effort are generated and analyzed.
Once the sampling is complete, a geographic information systems-based map of chemical exposure throughout the water distribution system will be produced from the estimations. These exposure evaluations are a first step toward a full-risk assessment to the affected population.
The team will also assess the chemicals' fate and removal results throughout the water treatment processes. The results will be used to develop short- and long-term treatment strategies in the event of similar chemical spills, such as switching to an alternative water source, implementing a temporary treatment measure and building in redundancy.