Apr 10, 2007

Raimi on Water: Establishing an Early Warning Network

The need for a true early warning system for public water suppliers along the nation’s rivers began long before the 1990s.
There never was a coordinated effort to raise the alarm in times of trouble. Before 1994, only small pockets of perhaps two or three water plants would communicate to one another and only after one plant had already experienced the problem.
The first true early warning system started along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 1994. After the floods of 1985 and 1994, numerous deep mine discharges and the Ashland Oil spill, managers realized the need to bring all the systems together, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam system, into one calling tree network.
The Army Corps’ workers are at the water’s edge 24 hours a day to provide the eyes for the network and catch sight of spills that might go unnoticed. The network also has the various counties’ Emergency Management Agencies (EMAs) on board so they can start up the calling tree whenever a tanker truck or railway car carrying a contaminant might overturn and spill into the river or a feeder stream.

A seed planted

In 1997, the network found the need to include West Virginia into the calling tree, because the Monongahela River was formed in West Virginia from the Buchanan, Tygert and West Fork rivers combining. Also, the Monongahela is one of the few rivers that flows south to north. The network started with Morgantown, then added Fairmont, Clarksburg and Taylorstown. Cumberland Mine and Allegheny Power’s Cheat River Dam are also members of the network.
The unavoidable release of water from the Cheat Dam that caused the water to go even higher nearly caused the dam to be breached. If Allegheny Power had not released the water, the dam would have been breached. Thus, matters could have turned out worse than they they did. Bringing everyone together into one network meant we needed a Board of Directors to set policy and procedure afloat. This was accomplished in 1994.
The board was set up to run by the water systems themselves, with myself as a member from the regulatory community. The Army Corps, Allegheny Power, and a member from one county EMA also sit on the board.
The chair of the board changes every two years from a Pennsylvania representative to one in West Virginia, so each state has equal voice in the workings of the network. Each of the member systems fills out a facts sheet, which gives location, phone numbers, treatment chemicals used and in-house lab capabilities.
Each member gets a packet with all the members’ information, so that if, for example, one system is running low on a chemical it can contact a neighboring system to borrow some until the first can replenish and return it.

Practice makes perfect

Mock drills are performed quarterly to keep each member system sharp. The chair will set up a scenario, call the very first system in West Virginia and then wait to receive a call from the very last system in Pittsburgh. After receiving its call, each system fills out a form detailing the information it received and the time of day, then faxes that sheet to the chairman, who goes over the sheets and gives his assessment at the next board meeting.
The events of Sept. 11th brought new focus to the need of river networking on a national scale. Terrorists captured in Rome were found to have plans for the lethal contamination of our nation’s drinking water supplies. No longer can we just stare idly at a local person illegally dumping a contaminant into our rivers and streams.
The Monongahela River Communication Network has found the need to revamp our prevention efforts. Through coordinated efforts between our network, the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI, the network is taking steps to raise the level of alertness by each of its member systems.
In this type of scenario one cannot just look upstream, nor can one look solely to the protection of their intakes. A concerted effort must be made to look at each system totally, because many systems interconnect to other systems and feedwater to other systems. Danger to the health and well being of consumers would decrease, and after all, protection of the consumer was the main reason the network was formed in the beginning.

Security incorporated

The network is looking at becoming incorporated, allowing us to apply directly to the government for funding. We currently cannot do this and must approach each state separately for funding.
This causes problems, because one state will not fund anything that is to be used in another state. Training is being developed for member systems to learn new methods to fight the various problems our water systems face these days. Closer ties to both the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard are being developed to keep the network aware of the latest events as well as to develop new ideas in combating the threat posed by terrorist groups. Ties to the state and local police from both states are being developed to help expand the umbrella of protection each system in the network can rely upon in a time of need.
To date, one other network patterned after ours has been formed, that being on the Delaware River between systems in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But the concept of network communications along our nation’s rivers needs to be one of our top priorities. Now more than ever, early warning networks are very necessary to combat the problems faced by our nation’s public water suppliers.

About the author

Philip Ranieri is sanitarian for the state of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Water Standards and Facilities Regulation. He can be reached at 724/439-7325, or by e-mail at [email protected].