National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

Crisis Communication:
Building a Network to Keep Drinking Water Safe

by Michelle Moore
On Tap Associate Editor

From the table Ron Bargiel shared with the Brownsville water plant superintendent, he had a perfect view of the broad Monongahela River. The sun was shining, sparkling off the water outside the plant. Bargiel had just about finished his lunch when one of the plant’s operators called. He had spotted a huge black plume slowly floating toward the plant’s water intake and wanted the two men to come and take a look.

Bargiel said they hurried down to the water’s edge and immediately knew they had a problem. The men shut the intake, took some samples, and determined the goop was probably coal slurry from a barge loading facility upstream. After a little more investigation, they learned that a large amount of slurry had been accidentally dumped into the river.

Rivers are vulnerable to anything that spills into their waters. Oil, gas, toxic chemicals, or, like in this incident, coal slurry can flow from a ruptured tank or overturned railroad car. These spills cause tremendous pollution that kills fish, spoils river ecosystems, and generally contaminates anything they come in contact with. If a spill occurs upstream from a water treatment plant that pulls its supply from the river, it can damage the treatment system as well as contaminate the drinking water.

Water treatment plants along rivers are about as vulnerable as the rivers themselves. But, with a crisis strategy in place, treatment plants can make sure that the contaminated water doesn’t make it into the facility.

Figure 2. Alert Levels

Level 1-Small spill, not river-wide, confined to one pool or weakened significantly or small spill confined to surface area only.

Level 2-Larger spill, covers river-wide, some weakening from one pool to next, not confined to surface only.

Level 3-Covers bank to bank, no weakening from one pool to next, a contaminant that mixes at various depths, noticeable fish kill.

The purpose of the Monongahela River Communications Network is to provide a rapid alert system to notify water utilities on the river of spills and other problems so that they may better protect the drinking water being delivered to the communities they serve. We rely on your assistance and participation to be effective

Thank you for doing your part.

Riverfront Plants Are Wide Open to Spills
The Monogahela River—known locally as the “Mon"—joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Sanitarian Phil Ranieri knew that there were plenty of water treatment systems open to spills along the Mon. In 1994 he came up with a strategy for a communication network that would head off problems before they became disasters for the water plants.

Ranieri and Tom Flynn, western Pennsylvania district manager for the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), finalized the plan. Ranieri then met with all of Pennsylvania's Mon River water plant operators and representatives from the ACOE and from the Cheat River Dam, which is located on a small river that runs into the Mon. This group agreed that a network to alert each other about spills was a good idea. They formed a calling tree and practiced drills to be ready for anything that might appear in their river.

By 1997 the group realized that it didn’t make sense to have just Pennsylvania water systems involved. If something spilled into the river across the border in West Virginia, the network needed to be aware of it. Ranieri invited personnel from West Virginia water systems located on the Mon to join them, unifying the effort from the river’s start to end.

“Our emphasis here is on catching a situation before it can start, isolate it, and protect the consumers for each of the water companies,” Ranieri said. “When West Virginia came on board, we were able to get information about spills, mine drainage, outflows, and stuff coming from West Virginia as well.”

Each member of the group receives written intructions outlining the protocol to follow if anyone notices a spill on the river. Depending on the spill’s severity, the alert is classified as level one, two, or three, with level three being the most damaging. (See Figure 1 above.) The first caller reports on the location, time, and the nature of the spilled material. Each person in the chain must talk to a live individual at the next plant and not just leave a message if no one answers. And now, since there is more concern about terroristic threats to water systems, the group recently altered the calling procedure to extend both upstream as well as down.

“Everybody has the same calling tree list,” Ranieri said. “The personnel, say at Point Marion Lock and Dam, who first see evidence of a spill, pick up the phone and call both the next stop downstream and the plant upstream from them. They say that they just saw a suspicious fish kill on the river and to please be aware that this is an actual event, not a drill. That person, in turn, picks up and calls the next on the list, just like dominoes, following all the way up and downstream.”

The person initiating the network alert also must call the county emergency management agency and the district environmental protection office so they can take samples and notify other appropriate agencies about what’s happening. Ron Bargiel found himself in this position when that coal slurry came drifting down the river. The former chairman of the network’s board of directors and a water quality superintendent with Pennsylvania American Water Company, Bargiel knew exactly what he had to do. He alerted the next system downstream and called the officials from local agencies who needed to be aware of the situation.

Part of the reasoning behind setting up the network was to make sure that water plants would have time to either change their treatment processes if that was all they needed to do, or they could shut off their intakes entirely if it was a more serious incident.

“We found from our drills that it takes about an hour to call all the systems in the network from the furthest point upstream to the furthest point downstream,” Ranieri said. “The river doesn’t flow that fast so the warning time is ample for everybody to be alerted. Then they either close off their valves or monitor what they can with their lab equipment.”

Emergency management agencies also contribute their services to the crisis communication network. Ranieri said each county rotates on the network’s management board so there is always one representative from the agency partnering with the network.

If a tanker or a railroad car upsets, creating a spill that is not on the river itself but close enough to a stream or the river to cause problems, the county emergency management office closest to the spill activates the network. Within a short time, everybody in the network will know that a railroad car full of a potentially hazardous substance has overturned and might eventually make its way to the river. Operators at the water plants can then take steps to protect their systems.


Figure 2. Alert Procedure
Monongahela River Communications Network

If you notice a spill or other problem on the river or an upstream network member notifies you of a problem, please use the following guidelines for communicating down the network. All the necessary phone numbers are on the attached phone directory.

1.Call the next downstream facility and give them the following information:

• Tell them you are calling as part of the Mon River Communications Network to notify them of a problem on the river.
• The location of the spill and the approximate time it occurred.
• The severity or “level” of the spill based on the alert levels listed on page 39.
• The material that was spilled and any other information you have that might be useful.

Make sure you talk to a “live” person—do not leave a message on an answering machine. If you can’t get hold of anyone, call the next facility downstream until you reach a live person. Try again later to contact the other facility.

2.If you noticed the spill at your facility and are initiating the network alert, also call the emergency management agency (EMA) for the county where you are located and your district DEP office and give them the same information listed above.

Shared Information Helps Spread the Word
The manager of each water system in the communication network must fill out an information sheet that includes names, addresses, phone numbers, operating hours, chemical feeds for the system, and the plant’s lab capabilities. All the systems in the network get a packet showing everyone else’s information. The alert procedure is outlined in Figure 2 at right.

“This information is crucial in the case of a real emergency where each system is fighting a common calamity,” Ranieri said. “A spill can happen any time, day or night. If you know that one plant is shut down, and the spill is going to pass them by, you can skip on to the next open system that would be affected.”
This means that a plant that doesn’t draw water from the river after 5 p.m. isn’t going to have to worry about their customers if a spill occurs at midnight. The contaminant will have passed them by before start-up time the next day.

In addition to the basics such as phone numbers and operating hours on these forms, the treatment process information proves to be equally useful.For instance, if the majority of the plants are treating with potassium permanganate, one plant can help another.

“Say I’m working at plant A. I’m running low on my supply, and we’ve got a real emergency here,” Ranieri said. “I can’t just call and order more because it wouldn’t get here in time. Instead, I’ll look through my list and see this guy over here at plant D also is using permanganate. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, do you have an extra drum of permanganate? Can you spare it? We’re running out.’ Later, when plant A gets their order refilled, they’ll say ‘Here’s the drum you loaned us. Thanks for the help.’ It gets everybody along the same lines and cooperating through a sticky situation.”

Ranieri says they’ve still got a “few little bugs that have to be worked out” with the network. Personnel or phone number changes or changes in plant operation times need to be broadcast to the other members of the network as soon as they happen. All of the employees at each water system who might have to be involved in a crisis are trained to be aware of the protocol of the network. Members also perform quarterly mock drills to make sure the staff at each plant knows what to do if and when a real emergency arises.

“It’s a volunteer network,” Ranieri said. “We can’t force anyone to be in it. But we highly encourage them to. Because, as we tell them, if you don’t get a call, and you’re operating when something comes down, you’re putting your customers at risk.”

Bargiel agrees that a communication network is crucial for plant operations and customer safety. “Because of the conditions along the Monongahela River, there are a lot of potential outfalls that are hazardous—steel mills, coal mines, and what have you,” he said. “And because the water industry is one of the few, in fact, the only utility product that consumers ingest, there was a need to supplement what the Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency were doing, something within ourselves that we could manage.”

If you’re interested in learning more about forming your own crisis communication network, contact Phil Ranieri with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection at (724) 439-7325 or will come to your area and talk with plant managers or government agencies to help form imilar networks on rivers around the country.

About the Author
Michelle Moore lives near the Mon River and canoes with her husband down various creeks that run into this historic waterway.