PARKERSBURG - Leaders of water utilities in Wood County are unaware of any imminent threats like the January chemical leak that affected 300,000 West Virginians and continues to leave many worried about their drinking water in the Charleston area.
"You have more industrial sites on the other side of the (Ohio) River near us" than on the West Virginia side, Parkersburg Utility Board manager Eric Bennett said.
In addition, the utility board, which supplies water to 15,200 customers in Parkersburg and outside city limits, draws its water from underground aquifers, which are less vulnerable to contamination by spills than surface water like the Elk River, into which chemicals from a Freedom Industries storage tank in Kanawha County leaked last month.
"The wells are much safer than a surface water inlet like they have in Charleston," Bennett said. "It's better protected. And you have filtration through the ground."
The cities of Vienna and Williamstown and Lubeck Public Service District also draw from groundwater.
The Claywood Park Public Service District, which supplies more than 7,000 customers in Wood and Wirt counties, uses surface water, drawing from the Little Kanawha River. General Manager Todd Grinstead said the most likely potential source of contamination would be oil and natural gas operations near the river and its tributaries.
"Within our watershed, there's dozens of operations," he said.
Oil and gas exploration and development sites are required by law to have spill prevention and countermeasure plans, including secondary containment for any materials that are inadvertently released, said David Belcher, assistant chief with enforcement in the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas. Those plans may include regular inspections by the company, and state personnel also perform random inspections from time to time.
Claywood Park has multiple options when it comes to protecting against contamination of the Little Kanawha.
"We operate eight hours out of 24, so if we have a known contamination in the river, we can actually shut it down and not pull it into our intake," Grinstead said.
If the contamination lasted too long for that to be viable, the district has the ability to get water from the Parkersburg Utility Board and the Union Williams Public Service District.
Like other water utilities, Claywood Park also has treatment measures in place to remove contaminants from the water, and the raw water is continuously monitored, Grinstead said.
Tom Aluise, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said there have been 10 calls to the state's emergency spill line since March 2011 in reference to incidents that involved the Little Kanawha or its tributaries, excluding sewage bypass situations caused by excess precipitation.
The reports ranged from a rusty container floating down the river to diesel fuel spilled at a gas station in Calhoun County. At least two calls referenced the same incident, and at least one occurred downstream of Claywood's intake.
Grinstead said none contaminated the district's water supply.
While groundwater may be better protected than surface water, it is not immune from contamination.
"It can take anywhere from five minutes to years, depending on how deep the groundwater is, the type of aquifer, the precipitation at the time, the type and volume of the contamination and what remediation strategy is employed," Aluise said.
The Lubeck Public Service District gets its water from seven wells in the Washington Bottom area, at an average depth of 65 feet. Manager Randy Atkinson said a spill in that area would not immediately impact the water.
"It takes a while and has to be sort of insidious," he said.
Lubeck was one of six water districts in West Virginia and Ohio impacted by the presence of C8, a chemical used at the nearby DuPont Washington Works Plant and linked to health conditions including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and medically diagnosed high cholesterol. The chemical was unregulated for years and had been emitted from the plant since the 1950s.
DuPont installed a filtering apparatus to remove C8 from Lubeck's water, in addition to other treatment equipment the district uses.
Although Lubeck's wells are located near the Ohio River, a spill into that body of water "would not get into our water system," Atkinson said.
"The aquifer pushes toward the river. And so we collect water before it gets to the river," he said.
Bennett said Parkersburg's water can be affected by what happens in the river, but the river water must work its way through the ground to the aquifer, about 30 feet beneath the surface. A spill from a plant along the Ohio upriver from the wells a few years ago had no effect on utility board water, he said.
The closest potential source of contamination is likely the railroad that goes through the water treatment plant, Bennett said. There have been some minor spills before, but nothing significant.
"We constantly test anyway," Bennett said.
Vienna's water comes from wells that tap into aquifers 100 to 120 feet underground, Mayor Randy Rapp said. They are located on Ninth, 34th and 60th streets, not close to any industrial sites.
"We have three separate wellfields," Rapp said. "So if we had contamination at one of our wellfields, we would simply valve it out."
Williamstown has five wells on property adjacent to Tomlinson Avenue, said Alan Gates, director of public works and chief water operator for the city. While precautions would be taken if contamination in the Ohio River was reported, "it would take a lot longer for it to affect our water and possibly not even affect it," he said.
The Union Williams Public Service District did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
All local water systems are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have a sourcewater protection plan in place as well.
Aluise said the state is inventorying water facilities to determine potential contamination sources in the wake of the Elk River situation. The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department is also gathering information about water sources in the region, executive director Dick Wittberg said.
"Ever since the Charleston disaster, I've got one of my people, all across my six counties, looking into where the water does come from," he said.