SHEPHERDSTOWN – Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz doesn’t pretend to predict the future, even though the majority of his efforts overseeing West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute projects are proactive and aimed at looking ahead to prevent potential, water-related environmental problems.
Even so, neither Ziemkiewicz nor his staff could have known in advance just how relevant this year’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Conference would be – especially after the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River from a corroded storage tank at Freedom Industries that left approximately 300,000 water customers in a nine county-region (including people in Charleston) without safe tap water for weeks, because it occurred upstream from the state’s largest water treatment facility.
At that time, a citizen reported the problem, which turned out to be the chemical MCHM that’s typically used in coal preparation plants.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley and state Senate majority leader, gives the keynote address at the Panel Discussion for Protecting Water Infrastructure from Energy-Related Incidents on Thursday at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Conference at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown. Other panelists, from left, include Walt Ivy, director, environmental engineering division, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources; John Kennedy, director, office of ecology and infrastructure, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality; and John Sheehan, director of communications, Adirondack Council. — Ron Agnir
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the regional conference – which was held Wednesday and Thursday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center – attracted about 130 participants from a variety of disciplines, including academia, government, research organizations and private business.
In addition to West Virginia, several other states were represented by participants and speakers, including New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, as well as Washington, D.C.
Its theme, “The Future of Mid-Atlantic Infrastructure: Challenges and Solutions,” may have been part of the draw, since the two-day event included sessions on tools for managing stormwater, the water and energy development conundrum and planning for future water supplies, as well as planning and response to climate change and flooding.
“What we hope to do here is highlight how to protect our source waters which are now under threat from a number of sources that can impact the quality of public water supplies – whether they are contaminated for a short period, or perhaps long-term. This is an especially good time for this discussion, since the Elk River incident has focused so much concern on this need,” Ziemkiewicz said.
One of the most popular topics dealt with drinking water safety -diverse discussions ranging from environmental concerns to political pressures, as speakers discussed what has been accomplished and what’s still needed.
Thursday’s keynote speaker, Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, whom Ziemkiewicz praised as having been “extraordinarily engaged” in water issues even before the spill, said he’s glad others are also finally taking an interest in this issue.
A problem of this nature and magnitude could still take place anywhere in the United States, said Unger, adding, “We won’t be judged by the fact this happened in West Virginia, but West Virginia will be judged by what we do about it.”
Unger, who heads the Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources, is credited as the driving force and lead sponsor for Senate Bill 373, a multi-faceted piece of legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. It was unanimously passed by legislators and requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to inventory and inspect above-ground storage tanks.
This type of regulatory action will be even more important as time passes, especially since so many places lack the abundance of water resources found in West Virginia, Unger said.
Already anticipating calls for revisiting the new law when the legislature meets again in January, Unger said it is not perfect and may need some tweaking.
But it represents a good start, one that he hopes will continue to bring people together rather than being divided by different interests or stakeholders.
Toward that end, Unger proposed holding a conference for next year to encourage communication among three specific interests – energy, environmental and agriculture.
“This is important because they are usually fighting over the same resource, fresh water, but it is one they all need to survive,” he said.
Panel members who took the floor after Unger discussed other types of threats to water supplies, including an incident earlier this year that sent 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of coal ash pond water into the Dan River from the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Plant site near Eden, North Carolina.
A representative of the Adirondack Environmental Council discussed the catastrophic problems – to both public health and water supplies – that can come from the derailment of railroad cars carrying oil. That’s an increasingly important consideration because of the increased rail shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in older cars, said communications director John Sheehan.
– See more at: http://www.weirtondailytimes.com/page/content.detail/id/624191/-Water-infrastructure–meeting-focus.html?nav=5006#sthash.65Foq9GF.dpuf