Five years after North America's biggest terrorist-driven security breach, the Great Lakes region's 40 million people still lack real-time information they need about oil and chemical spills that can foul water they drink, according to a U.S.-Canada government report released yesterday.
The 97-year-old International Joint Commission said improvements are necessary in monitoring, notifying, collecting data, and sharing information about spills as they occur.
Gaps exist even though spills appear to be on the decline, according to the IJC's 53-page report, which underscored some of the fundamental points of a similar report issued in July by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Dennis Schornack, the IJC's U.S. chairman, told The Blade it's a situation that shouldn't exist five years after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The main point we tried to make is the system for detecting chemical or oil spills is weak," Mr. Schornack said. "While there are monitoring activities, they are scattered."
Culling 15 years of data, the IJC focused on the St. Clair-Detroit River corridor.
Among its findings: Water-treatment operators did not know for days that a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ont., spilled 290 pounds of vinyl chloride monomer into the St. Clair River in the August, 2003, power blackout.
Sewage plants on the U.S. side of the river had raw sewage spills. The report said several people downstream became ill, although it noted that a link between the spills was not established.
It noted that the Safe Drinking Water Act, one which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses to regulate water plants, does not require operators to screen for many chemicals that may be released from upstream sources.
"There isn't a trigger that alerts plant operators when there is a spike of a toxic substance. It should happen automatically," Mr. Schornack said.
Bob Stevenson, longtime supervisor of the Toledo-area's water system, said the city's water plant has a "multiple barrier" defense.
Toledo surpasses U.S. EPA requirements by testing raw water as well as the end product. It is required to do only the latter. The city is the only Great Lakes water supplier that uses both carbon-activated filtration and lime soda ash to remove impurities, Mr. Stevenson said.
A full-time chemist assists operators around the clock, also exceeding minimum requirements. The plant is alerted to spills by the Coast Guard. Since the late 1980s, the city has been part of a regional task force that studies emergency scenarios for water, he said.
Federal EPA spokesmen Dale Kemery and Mick Hans said they did not know why certain chemicals were excluded from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
But Jason El-Zein, U.S. EPA emergency response chief in southeast Michigan, said there are "obviously resources and funding" issues that come into play. "There's no system to detect anything and everything. Even the best system you have won't do that," he said, while agreeing with the IJC's call for better coordination.
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