Chemical spill in WV

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Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 3:36 pm

Been reading about the chemical spill in West Virginia that contaminated the water supply of some 300,000 people. Here's hoping they get through it okay. Is anyone here affected by the spill?
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 6:09 pm

Makes me wonder when the company detected the leak. If they knew about the leak into the river but didn't warn authorities then they will be in big trouble. Maybe cities should start adding various chemical sensors to municipal water supplies...
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 6:23 pm

Problem is, covering all possible contaminants is going to be tough (and expensive). The minute someone suggests installing sensors for the chemical in this spill, someone else will point out that we should also be checking for every other potential industrial contaminant, and toxins/microbes that could be used in a terrorist attack. Costs would quickly spiral out of control.

If there was an intentional cover-up by the company, the individuals responsible should face hefty fines and jail time.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 6:56 pm

It's easier to regulate the point sources. If the company is handling a hazardous material, the state would normally require continuous monitoring or periodic sampling of the effluent from the plant.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 6:59 pm

Well, cities already spend a small fortune adding fluoride, chlorine, and processing the water to clean it and kill off anything in it before it's pumped into the municipal system. It doesn't go straight from the river to the tap.

For example, my city spent $572,880 in 2011 just to add flouride to the water supply. The cost of a couple sensors at the intake ports would be a drop in the bucket compared to that.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 7:21 pm

Kougar wrote:Well, cities already spend a small fortune adding fluoride, chlorine, and processing the water to clean it and kill off anything in it before it's pumped into the municipal system. It doesn't go straight from the river to the tap.

For example, my city spent $572,880 in 2011 just to add flouride to the water supply. The cost of a couple sensors at the intake ports would be a drop in the bucket compared to that.

Except that it wouldn't be just "a couple of sensors" unless you only care about monitoring for this one specific contaminant. What you really want to monitor for is the *next* contaminant, not the *previous* one. But to do that, you've either got to be clairvoyant, or install sensors for every possible contaminant you can conceive of, run continuous lab cultures for various harmful microbes, etc...
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 8:03 pm

I understand your point and I agree that a sensor for every single possible containment is not feasible. But I'm not proposing that.

A lot of these chemicals, such as the one in this spill and those used in fracking, produce fumes when the water is exposed to air. A simple, basic air sensor can indirectly detect the presence of these fumes, it doesn't have to do anything more than measure the standing percentage of one gas, say oxygen, and when that ratio drops they know there's some other gas in the air. A la similar to what Mythbusters recently did to determine the amount of ethanol fumes in the air, they simply measured the drop in oxygen levels from the known constant.

A lot of these chemicals also change the viscosity of the water, so a viscosity sensor that picked up a change in the water would be a dead giveaway there's contamination of some sort in progress.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Sun Jan 12, 2014 8:41 pm

If toxins are present at high enough levels to depress the measurable level of oxygen in the air or significantly change the water's viscosity, you're already in a heck of a lot of trouble. These effects are noticeable when the concentration of contaminants is in the tens of thousands of ppm.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 2:22 am

Yup. Many of these industrial chemicals are potentially harmful at trace levels, down in the PPM (or even PPB for some of the particularly nasty ones like dioxins). You're simply not going to be able to detect levels like that by measuring how much oxygen has been displaced. Even if you had a sensor sensitive enough to do that, it would be giving false alarms constantly from normal fluctuations in the O2 level.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:08 am

Actually the "cheap" and "easy" way to do this is just run samples through a mass spectrometer!

It can detect very small concentrations and match the signal detected with known compounds automatically. A GCMS would be best I think so you don't have to know too much about retention times.

no huge array of sensors, just one machine that is standard in basic research labs.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:16 am

A lot of communities do regularly test their water and they do this via a mass spectrometer.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:17 am

Check out 1st detect for this sort of thing. Small, portable, pretty awesome little product. Then again you could put some fish upstream like Gizzard Shad which are sensitive to everything like a canary in a coal mine. Belly up? Close the valve.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:33 am

How much does a sufficiently sensitive mass spectrometer cost, and how much training does it take to operate one and interpret the results?
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 11:08 am

"All right, your suit should keep you comfortable through all this. The specimen will be delivered to you in a few moments. If you would be so good as to climb up and start the rotors, we can bring the anti-mass spectrometer to 80 percent and hold it there until the carrier arrives."
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 12:28 pm

According to the article, the tank which was the source of the leak was not subject to intensive monitoring by the state environmental agency because the company was "storing," not "producing." That's a rather strange delineation to make, since a site that "stores" normally also "transfers" and both processes have spill risks.

It's pleasant to imagine a faultless sensor array that detects problems and gives plenty of warning, but no amount of wizardry will suffice if the sensible, easy stuff isn't being done.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 1:35 pm

Top of the line MS machines used in pharmaceutical research are hundreds of thousands of dollars. However basic or used models are much less expensive. The information you would get would be basically the same. In undergrad we used a GCMS that was probably at least 20 years old. (The computer was running windows 3.1 for perspective.)

Machines of that age were still able to compare the readings with a database and make an automated list of material in the sample. So the operation is very simple.

MS is most useful for organic compounds, which covers a huge amount of poisons stuff.

The other machine that would be available and relatively simple to use is called an atomic emissions spectrometer which is useful for identifying metals. I did a senior project using this machine to measure copper concentration in samples from yeast looking for evidence of bio-remediation.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 3:36 pm

Ya scary stuff. I'm in Canada, and a few years ago crap went down in Walkerton Ontario. Human error seems to blame most of the time.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkerton_Tragedy
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/inside-wa ... n-1.887200
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 8:43 pm

If you're looking for good quantitative results for low-ppb metals (known species), you probably want ICP-AES.

In the case of the chemical involved in this spill, it turns out to be a cyclic organic alcohol for which relatively little toxicity data was available. The CDC had to move fast to come up with a permissible exposure number based on limited LD50 testing in rats. Once they provided that number, the local officials were able to monitor the situation and determine when the water was safe to use.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 9:04 pm

JustAnEngineer wrote:In the case of the chemical involved in this spill, it turns out to be a cyclic organic alcohol for which relatively little toxicity data was available. The CDC had to move fast to come up with a permissible exposure number based on limited LD50 testing in rats. Once they provided that number, the local officials were able to monitor the situation and determine when the water was safe to use.


I was aware that there's limited toxicity data based on the chemical's MSDS, but it's scary to think that not even the CDC fully understands the risk and required precautions of this chemical. In a way it's worse than a nuclear disaster -- at least in that case, you know what to look out for and how to avoid trouble, even if it's 'get as far away as possible and don't come back'. With this new chemical, it's possible that the CDC will declare the area to be safe, when, due to a lack of understanding of the chemical, it's really not safe.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 9:35 pm

JustAnEngineer wrote:In the case of the chemical involved in this spill, it turns out to be a cyclic organic alcohol for which relatively little toxicity data was available.

A PAH? I've spent enough years in the banking & regulatory world and paid for enough enviro-scans to know that I really don't want to find PAHs on-site even if I may not fully understand exactly which PAH.
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Re: Chemical spill in WV

Postposted on Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:03 pm

The expert scientists who've looked at it this week don't believe that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a very toxic chemical or that it will have a persistent effect on the environment. Bacteria should eat most of what spilled within a few weeks. However, there just wasn't much research done on this particular chemical.
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