Sunday, October 24, 1999

Local EPA experts helped N.C.

Offered advice on water cleanup

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Award-winning drinking water experts from Environmental Protection Agency labs in Corryville learned more than they taught in flood-devastated North Carolina.

        Most important, Kim R. Fox and Eric M. Bissonette said, was to move faster when floods, hurricanes or tornadoes damage water treatment plants.

        Local people knew what to do, Mr. Bissonette said, but “they didn't have the confidence or the knowledge that what they were doing was appropriate.”

        Amen, added Harry Penwell, supervisor of the Tarboro water treatment plant. “They were reassuring. It was nice to have people of that level approving what we were doing.”

        Moreover, Mr. Penwell said, the Cincinnatians' findings defused second-guessing that could have delayed recovery.

Workers hung on
        A second lesson was the awesome devotion of municipal employees at the six damaged plants, many who knew they were losing homes and vehicles but stayed on the job until surging Tar, Neuse or Cape Fear Rivers overwhelmed their facilities.

        “They sacrificed personal issues to deal with their jobs,” Mr. Bissonette said.

        Mr. Fox thought he was “emotionally prepared” for the devastation “but it was like seeing Falmouth repeated over and over ...” At times, he said, he was speechless.

        Third, the two EPA engineers gained a new appreciation of local ingenuity when they saw innovations Mr. Penwell and others used to resume water treatment and distribution when floods began to recede.

        In one place, employees replaced a ruined ozone purification unit with a chlorine drip; in another, workers broke through the roof and used a rowboat to carry a hot electric cable through a flooded building to restart pumps.

        As one of the boaters said, “I've got 12,000 people that I have to get drinking water to.”

        In still another plant, pumps were within a minute of losing power to rising water when workers used a car battery to keep equipment run ning.

        Fourth, local plant operators needed outside expertise but there was a “huge pride issue on whether they would accept it,” Mr. Bissonette recalled. The EPA engineers were accepted as helpful peers, “not people coming in and running their plants.”

        Fifth, operators should flood metal chlorine, charcoal and fluoride tanks when a flood is imminent or the tanks will break loose, float around and batter everything until they do more damage than rising water.

        Finally, automated systems were most vulnerable and manual backups should be installed.

Gold-medal efforts
        Mr. Fox is part of the national risk management research lab in EPA's office of research and development. Mr. Bissonette is based in the technical support center's ground-water and drinking water office.

        Both have EPA gold medals for solving deadly drinking water problems in Milwaukee and Washington. They went to North Carolina in the first week of October when regional EPA officials called for help.

        In his regular work, Mr. Fox evaluates the effectiveness of the various treatments for drinking water taken from rivers, lakes and reservoirs and answers the questions, “How do you kill a bug; how do you get a contaminant out.”

        Mr. Bissonette assesses operations at drinking water treatment plants and recommends ways to improve them.

        They didn't carry federal checkbooks, and their expertise did not extend to myriad flood-contaminated wells.

        However, they knew that EPA in Washington had pulled together a one-time “special pot of money for analytical services” for hurricane-damaged community water supplies and they urged headquarters to provide well-testing kits to North Carolina state personnel.

        One pleasant surprise was the absence of contamination from flooded sewage plants and waste pits at huge pork and poultry factory farms, Mr. Fox said. “They'd already been flushed by monumental amounts of rainfall” from hurricanes Dennis and Floyd.

        As a result, they found “no outlandish bacteria” in raw drinking water drawn from the rivers, Mr. Bissonette said.


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