DEP: Redesignate Kanawha for Drinking-Water Use
7 May 2014
By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer
West Virginia regulators plan to propose a major water quality
change that would designate the Kanawha River through Charleston
for potential use as a public drinking-water source, state
Department of Environmental Protection officials said Wednesday.
The action, if approved by lawmakers, could remove a legal hurdle
that West Virginia American Water has said makes it too expensive
for the company to add a secondary drinking-water intake for the
300,000 residents who get their water from the utility’s treatment
and distribution plant on the Elk River, which feeds into the
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency’s goal is not to
pressure the water company, but he added that redesignating the
Kanawha as safe for drinking-water use would provide the region
with an alternative that hasn’t existed for more than 30 years.
“It gives options,” Huffman said in an interview. “That’s what we
didn’t have in January.”
The DEP proposal could also ultimately lead to tougher pollution
restrictions on the Kanawha and to steps to improve water quality
in the river.
In January, when the Freedom Industries chemical leak contaminated
the region’s drinking water, many residents were surprised to
learn that West Virginia American Water had only one intake, on
the Elk River, with no backup supply readily available. Under
legislation passed in the wake of the leak, water providers in the
state would have to study their ability to switch to alternative
supplies or intakes in the event of contamination.
The water company has said its preliminary estimates show that
building a second intake on the Kanawha would cost between $70
million and $105 million. That’s largely because existing
restrictions would force the intake to be located above the Belle
area, forcing the company to pipe the water to the Elk River for
treatment and distribution.
Laura Jordan, spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, said
Wednesday that her company needs to learn more about exactly what
the DEP is proposing.
“At this point in time, we don’t have the information to
understand what water quality changes may allow for this new
classification,” Jordan said. “We will, of course, need to
understand why they are making the change and see the data they
are relying on. However, if this option is made available, we
would certainly factor it into our ongoing evaluation.”
Technically, what the DEP proposes to do is remove an exemption in
the state’s water quality standards that excludes part of the
Kanawha from the general rule that West Virginia rivers and
streams be kept clean enough for use as public drinking water. The
change would be subject to a public comment period, and then
submitted for legislative consideration.
Under the rules, all waterways are designated for different uses,
such as drinking, fishing and contact recreation, like swimming.
Different water quality limits are set, based on the designated
uses of a particular waterway. The most stringent limits are for
drinking-water sources. That use is known as “Category A.”
Unless a stream is exempt from Category A, the more stringent
water quality limits are supposed to apply to all state waterways
— a level policy that regulated industries have tried for years to
eliminate and citizen groups have struggled to protect.
Being designated for a particular use, such as drinking water,
doesn’t necessarily mean a stream attains that use or is clean
enough for that particular use. And the DEP change alone, if
finalized by lawmakers, does not approve location of a drinking
water intake on the Kanawha. New intakes need approval from the
state Bureau for Public Health and the state Public Service
Since about 1979 or 1980, a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River
starting just upstream from Belle has been exempt from Category A
use and protections, said Kevin Coyne, program manager for water
quality standards at the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste
The exact reasons for the exemption are not clear. Coyne said a
review of state records shows “very little rationale” behind the
exemption, but that legacy pollution from area chemical
manufacturing appears to have been the driving force.
Concerns about using the Kanawha as a drinking-water source date
back to before the Category A exemption. When the company then
known as West Virginia Water Co. proposed building the Elk River
treatment and distribution plant in the late 1960s, state health
officials rejected a second intake proposed at Chelyan, deeming
the Kanawha’s water “unsatisfactory,” state Public Service
Commission records show.
DEP reports still list parts of the Kanawha downstream from Belle
as “impaired,” citing violations of standards for fecal coliform
and fish consumption advisories related to elevated fish tissue
concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Fish
advisories also warn not to eat certain fish from the Kanawha
downstream of the I-64 bridge in Dunbar because of dioxin
Officials said some of those issues, such as fecal coliform, can
be dealt with by a modern drinking-water treatment plant, and
Huffman said there’s no question that the Kanawha has improved
greatly since the Category A exemption was put in place many years
“It’s a clean river,” Huffman said, “and it’s clean enough to make
drinking water out of.”
Evan Hansen, president of the Morgantown-based environmental
consulting firm Downstream Strategies, noted that designating the
Kanawha as “Category A” would mandate some tougher pollution
restrictions, and could force the DEP to tighten permit limits for
some industrial sites and other businesses along the river.
“This is sort of an acknowledgment that it would be a good thing
to hold the Kanawha River to the same standards as other rivers
across the state,” Hansen said. “I think it’s a really good
Coyne said questions raised by residents and the news media after
the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries leak about why West Virginia
American Water doesn’t have a secondary intake on the Kanawha
helped push the DEP to focus on whether the Category A exemption
is really necessary.
“[The leak] is a factor, yes,” Coyne said. “It really brought it
to our attention. We think it should be protected, to restore and
maintain that use. Does that mean that somebody is going to run
out and put a drinking-water intake there? I don’t know that.”
The proposed change is among issues expected to be discussed at a
water quality standards public meeting today at 3 p.m. at the DEP
headquarters in Kanawha City.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.
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