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Elk River foam closes WVAW intake

David Gutman
Investigators tried Thursday to determine what caused this white foam in the Elk River. The incident drew extra attention because of the recent chemical leak into the river.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia American Water shut down its water intake on the Elk River for nearly two hours Thursday, after a white foam was seen floating along the banks of the river.

The water company has faced criticism over its decision not to shut down its water intake during the Jan. 9 chemical leak from Freedom Industries -- an incident that contaminated the drinking water of about 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties. As a result, Thursday's incident received additional scrutiny from government agencies and the local news media.

State inspectors spent much of Thursday investigating the white foam. Initial tests showed no changes to water quality, according to the water company, and testing by the West Virginia National Guard showed no man-made substances in the foam, said Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the state's Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

The foam being investigated Thursday was in the Elk above West Virginia American Water's regional intake, but Department of Environmental Protection officials said they believe the material appeared to be coming from farther upstream than the Freedom Industries tank farm where January's leak occurred.

The water company's intake was shut down from 9 a.m. until 10:45 a.m., company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said. The DEP notified her company of the situation at about 8:40 a.m., she said.

The intake was shut down "until more information could be gathered" about the incident, according to a West Virginia American news release.

"The plant continued to pump treated water out of its clearwell, as system conditions allowed for the plant to maintain adequate system storage during this time," the company said. "The plant resumed normal operations after water quality staff consulted with the [state Bureau of Public Health], as well as confirmed that no foam or film was present on the river near the plant intake."

The clearwell is a 4.5-million-gallon storage area that is the first storage for water that has been treated. Jordan said the company was able to shut down its intake on Thursday -- but not after the chemical leak -- because the clearwell and other storage areas had much more water in them Thursday.

"The conditions in the system today were dramatically different than on Jan. 9," Jordan said. "We had adequate storage in our clearwell to be able to endure a brief shutdown."

Jordan said the company could have shut down its intake for four hours without impacting customers.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, previously has said that if the company had shut down its intake on Jan. 9, some customers would have been without water within 15 minutes and major portions of Charleston would have been without water within two hours.

McIntyre said the company was pumping 43 million gallons per day on Jan. 9, near its maximum production rate, but was still losing ground in keeping its tanks filled because the cold weather had caused burst pipes throughout the system.

The water company is doing additional analysis on the foamy water for total organic carbon and volatile organic compounds.

The investigation began after a local television station alerted Kanawha County officials about the foam. County officials checked out the report but initially were unable to find anything, said C.W. Sigman, the county's deputy emergency services director.

County officials alerted the DEP, and state inspectors went to the scene, said Tom Aluise, a spokesman for the DEP.

Sigman said DEP inspectors and the county later spotted some sort of foam but had not yet identified the material. "The DEP is trying to figure out what's going on," Sigman said at the time.

In a news release, DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said initial tests showed "no harmful materials or unnatural odors" in water samples from the area. "While the WVDEP can't yet conclusively say this foam was naturally occurring, the agency has found no evidence that the substance was the result of a spill," Gillenwater said.

She said the DEP was waiting on results of a second test to support the initial findings.

Water company staff from the Elk River treatment plant investigated and "found a white colored foam intermittently along the banks of the Elk River from Coonskin to Queen Shoals, as well as along Big Sandy Creek in the Clendenin area," Jordan said.

In an email message, Jordan said, "the appearance indicates that it may be a naturally occurring foam."  Jordan said testing of samples of the foamy water, taken from near the Queen Shoals boat ramp, at Mink Shoals, and at the plant intake showed no change in acidity or solids content from regular river water quality.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency was looking into the possibility that the foam was naturally occurring. Foam can form naturally on rivers and lakes when leaves, twigs or other organic plant matter falls into the water and begins decaying. The resulting reactions break the surface tension of the water, and allow air to mix more easily with water, forming bubbles that can collect as natural foam.

"It may be something as harmless as that," Huffman said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com  or 304-348-5119. 


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