By Catherine Clabby
It didn’t take long for public water system managers in training on Wednesday to be reminded of how swiftly a crisis can strike a water supply.
Fresh on everyone’s mind, of course, was this summer’s public disclosure that the industrial chemical GenX had infiltrated drinking water supplies drawn from the Cape Fear River, a situation costing some water utilities big money and threatening public trust.
But it was only last fall that Hurricane Matthew produced historic flooding and disrupted water systems across eastern North Carolina. Some water systems were knocked out of commission entirely, speakers reminded listeners at N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center.
And just last winter a string of equipment failures and human error forced the well-regarded Orange Water and Sewer Authority to issue do-not-use and do-not-drink orders to tens of thousands of customers. That came after too much fluoride was added to drinking water and a water pipe broke in quick succession.
“It was boom, boom, boom — not good,” said Kenneth Loflin, OWASA’s water supply and treatment manager. “Hopefully you’ll learn from our experiences.”
Most people twist a faucet at home to get a drink of water without considering how it’s kept safe and flowing. The opposite is true for utility workers from across the state who attended the North Carolina Waterworks Operators Association training this week.
It’s the sort of meeting where vendors pitch specialized water services such as sewer diving, clog removal, and new pump hardware and software. Or where people on break gossip about disputes over water rights in growing counties or the way a massive catfish can pester a person using tools in standing water.
But primarily it’s where everyone from equipment operators to managers go for state-mandated training. Front-line staff learn how to remove manganese and iron or inject fluoride treatments. Managers are reminded of hidden concerns that are always an undercurrent.[sponsor]
Kenny Waldroup, assistant public utilities director in Raleigh, stressed to utility staff attending his talk that weather, equipment failure and unexpected contaminants are not the only modern-day threats a utility must prepare for.
Water systems need concrete plans to remain in operation if a public health crisis, such as a flu pandemic, strikes staff, he stressed. They need to take seriously the growing evidence that solar storms may disrupt power grids vital to their machinery and software. And they can’t ignore the reality that hackers will attempt to defeat their cybersecurity.
“The city of Raleigh regularly gets poked from overseas,” Waldroup said. “We see it, it’s a sort of jiggling of the door.”
Preparing for the unexpected
The best defense, Waldroup said, is to plan for the unexpected, not just on paper but with exercises that engage staff. And to understand the actual – not assumed – resources at hand.
Some of Waldroup’s practical advice:
- Know for sure how much water supply a utility would have if it lost the use of a major line.
- Know where utility customers can obtain bottled water when a system can’t serve their taps.
- In a flood, make sure that the treatment plant is functional and that the roads to the plant remain passable.
Clear and frequent communication with customers, including angry customers, and the press is paramount during a crisis, said Mike McGill, a former communications director for the Cape Fear Public Utility.
McGill parted ways with his CFPU position last April. He has been critical of the Wilmington-based utility for not being more proactive about telling customers about the discovery of GenX, an industrial contaminant, in its water supplies. Although the utility knew the local newspaper, the Wilmington Star News, was reporting a story on the topic, it did not reveal the news itself, McGill said.
A utility review of its communications concluded that staff did not have adequate reason to believe initially that the presence of GenX and related unregulated chemicals may pose health risks. It wasn’t until the newspaper broke the news that Chemours Co., the source of the contamination, told state and local officials that some GenX may have been released into the Cape Fear since the 1980s.
McGill argued Wednesday that it’s always smarter to be first to disclose potential issues. Otherwise, a utility risks losing control of a narrative.
Addressing rumors that pop up on social media, where inaccuracies can spread quickly, is particularly key, he said.
“When a situation is at its worst, that’s when you have to communicate most,” said McGill, who has launched a communications firm called WaterPIO.
This story was modified on Sept. 29 to note that Mike McGill left a full-time position at Cape Fear Public Utilities in April.