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W.Va. chemical spill a specter for Columbia City

City hired contractors to map out water source protection strategies


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Ray Biggs, right, told the City Council of Columbia City Thursday, Jan. 16, that he is concerned about potential contamination of Columbia City's drinking water sources. Biggs sells water distillers, which he recommended as a means of ensuring water purity.West Virginia is fitfully recovering from a chemical spill earlier this month in the Elk River that contaminated drinking water in nine counties, leaving about 300,000 without water for days.

Columbia City officials would like to avoid such a disaster.

The small city embarked on a project to formulate a drinking water source protection plan last year after receiving a $28,655 state grant.

Last month, contractors submitted a list of proposed strategies to safeguard Columbia City’s groundwater wells to City Administrator Leahnette Rivers. They are available from the municipal website for public consideration.

Rivers said Friday, Jan. 17, that contractors from Portland-based consulting firms Equant and GSI Water Solutions Inc. have identified several risks to Columbia City’s drinking water sources, although she said none of the risks are “super-high.”

“The protection strategies are targeted at reducing the risks that were identified,” Rivers said. Those risks include Highway 30, the Portland and Western Railroad, the Columbia City Public Works shop, and residences and “potential businesses” inside the protection area, she added.

The spill of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol and polyglycol ethers in West Virginia, as well as Columbia City’s proximity to the Dyno Nobel fertilizer plant in Deer Island, prompted Columbia City resident Ray Biggs to speak at the second of at least three planned public hearings on the drinking water source protection strategies Thursday, Jan. 16.

“I applaud your effort to try to curtail whatever you can,” Biggs said. “But it’s kind of like, you’ve got a car going down the road, and there’s no brakes, and you take it to the mechanic and say, ‘Well, let’s get one of the brakes working, because that’ll slow the car down.’ Distillation will stop all of this. If these people in West Virginia had each had a distiller, it wouldn’t have been an issue.”

Biggs, a landlord who also serves on the St. Helens School District’s board of directors, has a side business dealing water distillers. He said Friday that his smaller distillation units start at about $700 and can produce almost a gallon of nearly “100 percent pure water” in several hours by boiling, evaporating and condensing water from the tap or another source.

But the way the city’s drinking water source protection strategies aim to address the danger of water contamination is not through special equipment, but through informing the public, emergency responders and those who present potential risks about the issue, Rivers said Friday.

“Most of our strategies relate to public education,” Rivers said.

Among the strategies in the Dec. 11 memo on the Columbia City website are proposals to install signage along Highway 30 and the P&W rail line, which run through the city, alerting motorists and train operators that they are entering Columbia City’s source water protection area; alert police and fire agencies of the area’s boundaries and advise caution in responding to “spills or other releases;” and direct Columbia City Public Works to use non-chlorinated solvents and dispose of expired chemicals to reduce the risk of contamination from its facility at 1755 Second Place.

If a spill does take place, Rivers said, city officials will try to inform residents as quickly as possible.

The city recently implemented a community alert notification system that sends out automated 911 calls to residents who have signed up for alerts, although Columbia City Police Chief Mike McGlothlin lamented at last Thursday’s meeting that a test that afternoon did not dial out to some recipients as quickly as he would have liked.

“We’re still looking at, best case, given all these good things that did happen, 20 minutes to still get a message out, totally pushed out,” McGlothlin said. He suggested the system would not be well suited to inform citizens of a public health or safety danger such as a chemical release, saying, “I would not recommend that that would be the best system to get the word out to our citizens for an emergency.”

Last Thursday’s public hearing was carried over and will likely resume Feb. 6, by which time Rivers said she hopes a draft plan incorporating the proposed strategies will be available for the public and City Council of Columbia City to review.