Nine days ago, residents of West Virginia noticed something strange about their water - it smelled like liquorice. The smell was caused by 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to wash impurities off coal.
About 7,500 gallons of the chemical made it into the Elk River, the nine-county region’s source for drinking water, affecting 300,000 people.
The Missouri and Little Missouri rivers flow through the heart of North Dakota’s Oil Patch. The Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea feed much of western North Dakota’s drinking water.
With so much industrial development in the Lake Sakakawea area, the threat of a spill grows greater, but there is also much more regulation and safeguards in the area compared with the events that occurred in West Virginia.
“West Virginia’s a little bit different from North Dakota,” said Dave Glatt, chief of the environmental health department of the North Dakota Department of Health.
The Army Corps of Engineers controls the shores of Lake Sakakawea, so very little development is allowed right next to the lake, Glatt said.
Lake Sakakawea was on the list of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s extraordinary sites, which proposed to add a no-development barrier of up to 2 miles around key landmarks in the state.
“The farther away from the water source, the better it is,” Glatt said. “If certain activities are going to go on, such as oil production and development, you may not be able to locate quite that far away.”
There are several contingency plans in place if a spill were to happen on the lake, Glatt said.
“They look at the time of travel of a water molecule basically on the surface and how long it would take to get to an intake,” Glatt said. “They look at about a 10- to 15-day travel time upstream from where the intake is, taking a look at any type of activities that may occur upstream. So a spill may occur, but it gives the water system some time to react.”
The state has been performing tabletop exercises with local and federal authorities to run through the “what ifs,” Glatt said. This allows each agency to know its place and be prepared for a spill.
The Environmental Protection Agency has trained state and local agencies on the proper procedure for placing booms on the lake to stop the spread of a spill, Glatt said. Booms and other supplies needed for spill cleanup have been strategically placed around Lake Sakakawea for easy access by emergency crews.
“There are regulations that deal with containment dikes on pads, so if there is a release that occurs on an oil well, there’s an increased potential that it would be contained on site and not run off,” Glatt said. “There are instances where the containment has been breached - then it becomes incumbent upon the responsible party to contain it, but they also need to notify the oil and gas division and also the state health department of the release, and then we get inspectors out there to make sure that it’s appropriately contained.”
Oil is the most likely substance to spill in Lake Sakakawea, and it is what officials are most prepared to clean up, Glatt said. Because oil floats on top of water, a small spill could have little to no effect on the water supply.
“We’re the lowest intake on the lake,” said Mary Massad, CEO of Southwest Water Authority, the agency that delivers drinking water to most of southwest North Dakota. “It would have to be - oil and things that were off in a bay, we could probably buoy that off and it would float on the surface, but we would address that.”
Southwest Water has contingency plans that are constantly being reviewed and updated, Massad said.
Water from Lake Sakakawea is treated twice - once with chloramines, a disinfectant, at Dodge before it travels to the water treatment centers in Zap and Dickinson. The treatment center in Dickinson uses a soft lime process to filter out the larger suspended particles and an anthracite filter to clean the smaller impurities from the water. Before heading out into the drinking supply, it is treated once again with the chloramines.
“Most everyone is going to chloramines, away from straight chlorine,” said Dave Lupo, water treatment manager at the Southwest Water treatment plant in Dickinson. The chloramines last longer than chlorine.
In West Virginia, the tanks that stored the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol hadn’t been inspected for more than a decade because the chemical wasn’t considered hazardous. The company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries Inc., filed for bankruptcy.
The only use for the contaminated water was to flush toilets. While the chemical’s effects weren’t lethal, more than 200 people wound up in the emergency room with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin.
If something does hit the Southwest Water intake at Lake Sakakawea, there are backups in place.
“Most water systems have a two- to three-day supply that, if they had to shut off their intake and allow the contaminant to basically flow by, they would have a couple days’ supply of water to get them by that critical point,” Glatt said. “That being said, we all prepare for the worst.”
Reuters News Agency contributed to this story.