Toxic Water Plagues the States

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If you look on your calendar, you’ll notice that August is nearly halfway over. In addition, we are almost 75 percent through 2014. Before I get too ahead of myself, I want to focus on the current month. August is National Water Quality Month in the United States. This month, we are encouraged to look at what our household, community and business can do to protect sources of fresh water. Habits to protect water can include:

  • Not flushing unwanted or out-of-date medications down the toilet or drain
  • Turning off the water while brushing your teeth
  • Fixing leaks at your home and business
  • Not putting anything but water down the storm drains

These are all helpful tips to preserve fresh water sources. But, what happens when water becomes toxic? Because August is National Water Quality Month, we should revisit two water crises: The West Virginia water crisis and the recent Toledo, Ohio crisis.

Toledo Water Crisis

Algea 1Earlier this month, the water of Lake Erie (just north of Toledo, Ohio) turned green. Not just a tint of green, but nearly lime green. With 11 million lakeside residents, Lake Erie is an essential source of water for Toledo residents. Ohio Governor John Kasich declared a state of emergency in early August over the contaminated water.

Nestled in northwest Ohio, Toledo is the fourth largest city in the state. Being a native of the area, the city was my backyard growing up. When news broke about a ban on drinking the water, my social media accounts blew up with tweets and statuses with outraged residents. Nearly 400,000 residents of Toledo, suburbs and areas in southeast Michigan were prohibited from even brushing their teeth with the water that could not be purified through boiling.

According to The Toledo Blade, this was the cause of the hazardous water:

“Flooded by tides of phosphorus washed from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems, the most intensely developed of the Great Lakes is increasingly being choked each summer by thick mats of algae, much of it poisonous.”

The toxic algae formed above the city’s water-intake pipe miles offshore in the middle of the Lake. If consumed, the water could cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems. Although it may not kill a human, small dogs and animals were at high risk of death by consuming the water.

Apart from the dangers to people and animals, the toxic water took a punch to the commercial fishing and recreational and vacation trades. Tens of billions of dollars have been lost by local businesses because of the algae. Conservationists in the industries have urged for years to limit the phosphorus flowing into the lake. They have been unsuccessful in their efforts. Algae

This did not happen overnight. Decades have passed while the physical state of Lake Erie has declined. It was only a matter of time before the water became too toxic to consume. Documents obtained by The Blade revealed Toledo Mayor, D. Michael Collins, and other city officials “were warned by a top state official that lagging plant repairs threatened the plant’s safe operation.” In addition, a February 6 noticed cited “significant deficiencies” in a plant’s sedimentation vent and alum system. 

Mayor Collins lifted the water ban just days after it was put into place. This came after water tests from affected neighborhoods returned “nondetectable” levels of the algae toxin.  

West Virginia Water Contamination

Residents of Charleston, West Virginia were warned on January 9, 2014 to refrain from drinking tap water. The restrictions were put into place after 7,500 gallons of the chemical MCHM leaked into the Elk River that is located just above a drinking water plant.The chemical leaked through a 1-inch hole in the wall of a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The company supplies products for the coal mining industry. The chemical moved through the soil into the river.

The toxic water affected nine counties in the surrounding areas. Over 300,000 residents were cut off from water consumption during the contamination. People were advised not to use the water to drink, cook, wash or bathe. If consumed, symptoms included a severe burning throat, trouble breathing and vomiting.

Without safe water, legistlatures had to shut down schools, businesses and restaurants. To add to the crisis, restaurants ran out of bottled water.

Four days after the initial spill, officals began lifting the ban in a strict, strategic way as to not overload the system with excess demands. Read a full list of updates throughout the contamination here.

Three months after the chemical spill, however, environmental officials were still working to keep toxins out of the West Virgina tap water. Test results indicated nearly 800,000 gallons of runoff water was free of chemicals in April 2014. Upwards of 109,000 West Virginia residents had health-related issues caused by the chemical spill.

Moving Forward With A Crisis Plan

Any business that uses water for any purpose – as a part of the manufacturing process, in food production, for livestock, would suffer a tremendous impact during a contamination like West Virginia and Toledo.

WVCHEMLEAKIndustrial water use includes water used for such purposes as fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product; incorporating water into a product; or for sanitation needs within the manufacturing facility. Some industries that use large amounts of water produce such commodities as food, paper, chemicals, refined petroleum, or primary metals. 

In the case of West Virginia, knowing little about the chemical compound contaminant created great confusion and an important area for additional review. For example; is it flammable? If during a water crisis, your facility experienced a fire, would there be an alternative, safe fire retardant or water source?

The discussion and process with your teams should identify the resources needed to resume critical functions, as well as identify critical internal and external dependencies essential to the recovery process.

While discussing your plan, review and update your Business Impact Analysis and think of these areas:

  • Department Recovery Time Objectives (RTO)
  • Department Recovery Point Objectives (RPO)
  • In-Out-Across Dependencies
  • Internal department to department
  • Key external suppliers and vendors
  • Employee Support
  • Customer Communication
  • Government Official Coordination
  • more….

Original story: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is encouraging West Virginians to do what they can to help local business owners and employees who were forced to close their stores or prevented from working due to the water crisis.

“The past few days have been incredibly hard for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who have been forced to live without access to clean water for drinking or to accomplish things we took for granted, such as take a shower, wash dishes or do laundry,” Attorney General Morrisey said. “But in true West Virginia style, we have come together as neighbors and helped each other out. Now that water is coming back on in certain areas, we need to continue our teamwork to support our neighborhood business owners and employees who were prohibited from working through no fault of their own.”

To do not use order caused restaurants, hair salons, car washes and other businesses that use water to close their doors or deeply limit what they could sell.

“Many business owners do not anticipate having to close for several days in a row, and as a result, may face severe economic hardships,” Morrisey said. “Small businesses, and restaurants in particular, typically work with very little margins; having to go days without customers could put these people in a make-or-break scenario.”

Morrisey said the closures have had a devastating impact on employees of shuttered businesses who may have gone without pay due to the crisis. (Read more here)

Review and begin to update your Business Impact Analysis Here.

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