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The Department of Environmental Protection has fined Pennsylvania American Water Co. $25,000 as the result of a December fluoride spill at one of its water treatment plants. The company also must implement a series of corrective actions to enhance chemical handling procedures and improve public notification in emergency situations.
The Dec. 10 spill at the Yellow Breeches #2 plant in Fairview Township, York County, caused elevated levels of fluoride in the drinking water supply, forcing the company to issue a “Do Not Consume” advisory to more than 39,000 customers in York and Cumberland counties.
“Although a ‘Do Not Consume’ advisory was provided through area broadcast news media, much of the affected public was not adequately informed,” DEP Southcentral Regional Director Rachel Diamond said. “Advisories are not effective if they do not deliver information to the intended audiences in a timely manner. The water company must take steps to prevent incidents like this from occurring again, and improve ways of issuing fast and factual public notifications in the future.”
On the morning of Dec. 10, an operator at the plant, who was
subsequently dismissed by the company, intentionally propped open a valve that led to the release of more than 300 gal of fluoride inside the treatment building. After closely monitoring the drinking water of customers on adjacent properties, the first sample results for unacceptable fluoride content within the distribution system were collected at approximately 2:30 p.m. However, the “Do Not Consume” advisory was not released to the media until almost two hours later.
Warnings were not repeated frequently enough for most residents to have been informed. Moreover, the advisories were scattershot and inconsistent. Many people were not watching televisions or listening to radios that Saturday afternoon. Many customers were dismayed that they were not aware of the advisory, or that they were not notified in a timelier manner.
DEP issued a notice of violation to the company on Jan. 17. As a result of the incident, Governor Edward G. Rendell directed DEP to strengthen the notification procedures that public water suppliers must follow to alert residents when there is an imminent threat to drinking water supplies.
Enhancements include the use of reverse 911 calls, door-to-door visits and bullhorn announcements to augment notices provided to local media. Community water systems must work with emergency responders to ensure quick dissemination of any water supply warning, and provide information about potential health effects and treatment options so consumers can make informed choices.
Diamond said the commonwealth aims to enhance advisories so they clearly state what actions residents need to take to stay safe. The department plans to propose revisions to Pennsylvania's safe drinking water regulations to specify an expanded list of situations that require a public water supplier to report to DEP and notify customers.
Under the consent order and agreement with DEP, Pennsylvania American must take the following corrective actions:
-- Update its operations and maintenance plans for the Silver Spring, Hershey and Yellow Breeches plants, paying specific attention to public and DEP notification procedures to include updated employee contact information and responsibilities, and website and media relations procedures;
-- Provide formal training to operators at each plant on the proper chemical handling procedures and review emergency response procedures to include emergency contact persons and a schedule for contacting them;
-- Conduct a review of chemical handling procedures at each plant with a goal of simplifying, making more effective and reducing the potential for error or malfunction; and
-- Provide online fluoride analyzers at each plant.
“The general public must feel absolutely certain that its drinking water is safe to consume and that if a problem should occur, they will be notified adequately and in a timely fashion,” Diamond said. “These corrective actions move Pennsylvania American in that direction.”
The $25,000 penalty will be paid to the Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Fund.