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Risks to local water supplies – and plans to protect them

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  • N.C. chemical accidents

    Businesses that handle large amounts of flammable and toxic chemicals have to file plans detailing what they store and what could happen in an accidental release. The risk-management plans, filed with the Environmental Protection Agency every five years, are intended to help emergency responders.

    The 28 Charlotte companies that file plans handled a total of 4.1 million pounds of toxic or flammable chemicals according to their most recent filings, reports RTKNet.org, a nonprofit website that publishes government databases.

    North Carolina businesses reported 29 accidents, none in Charlotte, in the five years before the latest update in May 2013, RTKNet.org reports. Those accidents killed one person and hurt 91, caused the evacuations of 455 people and left $17 million in property damage, the site says. Bruce Henderson



Plotted in red on a map, the contamination risks to Charlotte’s water supply look as threatening as blood clots on an artery.

But they’re still only potential risks. Records show no local contamination approaching the scale of last month’s chemical leak in West Virginia, which threatened the drinking water of 300,000 people.

Charlotte officials credit prevention, including regular inspections of places that store chemicals, and accident-response planning. A little luck might also have helped.

“The reality is that most cities like us don’t have a completely protected water supply,” said Barry Gullet, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. The department supplies water to 800,000 people.

A state program lists 46 potentially high-risk contamination sources around Charlotte’s main water intake on Mountain Island Lake. An additional 342 surround a secondary intake on Lake Norman.

Power plants, hazardous-waste producers, chemical-storage facilities, underground tanks and wastewater discharges all pose risks if something goes badly wrong.

Charlotte’s water utility works with emergency management and Homeland Security officials to prepare for and respond to accidents. A key strategy would be to curb water use, keeping contaminants from spreading through water pipes.

Surprises still happen, Gullet said.

When a tanker truck overturned in 1997 on a bridge over Long Creek, in northwest Charlotte, most of the 5,500 gallons of gasoline it spilled caught fire.

No gas reached Lake Wylie, which supplies water to downstream communities. But fire-retardant foam sprayed on the creek’s surface sucked oxygen from the water, killing about 1,000 fish.

The outcome might have been worse if the tanker had held chemicals that mix with water instead of one that floats on the surface.

“The reality is if whatever went into that lake is water soluble, nobody’s going to be able to do anything about it,” said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s water-quality manager.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities itself spilled 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage into a tributary of Mountain Island Lake in 2003. Sewage carries bacteria and pathogens but typically dissipates in a few days.

Duke Energy’s Riverbend power plant stores 2.7 million tons of coal ash, which holds metals that can be toxic in large doses, in open ponds on the shore of Mountain Island Lake. A large spill of ash, Rozzelle said, would be “completely uncontrollable.”

Shared oversight

Federal, state and local authorities share oversight of hazardous-materials facilities, depending on the amount of chemicals involved and how they are stored.

The Charlotte Fire Department inspects about 5,400 places with hazmat permits, from nail salons to massive petroleum tanks in west Charlotte, in cycles of six months to three years.

Mecklenburg County had 548 facilities, called Tier 2 sites, that stored 10,000 pounds or more of flammable or toxic chemicals in 2012, the last year reported.

Inspectors check for dozens of potential fire hazards, from locked exit doors to faulty fire alarm systems. They check the dikes that catch spills and look for rust, corrosion and seepage from storage tanks – but they can’t judge the tanks’ structural safety.

“We can question that, but it comes back to the owner to have that checked out,” said Garry McCormick, Mecklenburg County’s hazardous materials coordinator.

The Charlotte Fire Department says it has not issued a citation to a hazmat permitholder, under any of six codes related to chemical storage or containment dikes, in the past five years.

Two accidents were reported at those facilities – a 2010 gasoline fire and a refrigeration leak in 2009. Neither caused injuries.

Inspection reports for the 26 Charlotte facilities that are deemed to have the highest potential hazards note seven instances, in those five years, of “chemical storage not in compliance.” Two of those found cracks in containment walls meant to keep spills from escaping.

Jonathan Leonard, the city’s deputy fire marshal, said it’s unlikely Charlotte would see an accident like that in West Virginia. No hazardous materials facilities here are on waterways, he said, as Freedom Industries was on West Virginia’s Elk River.

“We get our mandated inspections done, we have strong fire codes, and I have a lot of confidence in the Charlotte Fire Department,” Leonard said. “This department is good at what we do with hazardous materials, both in response and prevention.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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