Experts warn chemical spills, aging infrastructure could cut off D.C. water

(WJLA) - After a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River left 300,000 residents without drinking water for several days in January, cities across the country started reviewing their infrastructure and emergency preparedness plans.

On Wednesday, experts told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that a similar crisis could happen anywhere.

D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said, “All of our greatest fears are connected to loss of service… [Drinking water is] not an add on. It's not an amenity. It's a necessity.”

If a similar spill happened in the Washington region, its impact would be 15 times larger. But how likely is that?

Washington is better situated – the experts said – because there are fewer industrial sites along the Potomac, the local watershed is protected by forests and the river has a high volume of water.

Still, there are low probability threats that would mean high impact consequences such as the Colonial Oil Pipeline that carries petroleum under the Potomac rupturing, or a train or semi-truck carrying chemicals falling off a bridge.

Washington Aqueduct General Manager Tom Jacobus said, “We know that commerce has to go on around us and we know there will be accidents. But we need to be prepared through exercises, through good river spill models, through knowing how our system works and how long we can sustain if we have to close our intakes.”

He continued, “If you do [close intakes at water treatment plants] for 24 to 36 hours while some event that has gotten into the river passes by, then what are we going to do to maintain the water service in the region?”

Last July, Prince George's County residents faced a possible water outage, in the middle of a summer heat wave, but crews eventually figured out how to bypass a failing water main.

In the future, local leaders are promising better regional communication, coordination and accounting of assets.

“I think there are a lot of lessons learned about early alert so that we can begin to do the things that are necessary if the worst happens,” said Bradford Seamon,
Prince George's County Chief Administration Officer.

Those aging water mains could be the biggest threat to water service. Much of D.C.’s infrastructure is 100-years old or older.

“It breaks more, you've got to repair it more often,” Hawkins said. “So your operating costs go up. But just as your operating costs go up, you say, ‘Oh my gosh, we've got to replace some of these not just fix them. Take the old one out and put a new one in.’”

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