ORSANCO Organic Detection System watches over the Ohio River

By on August 3, 2012


On October of 2006, a train derailment sent 23 tank cars full of ethanol off the tracks. Three of them spilled their contents into the Beaver River, a tributary of the Ohio River that enters at mile 25. What could have been an environmental disaster was avoided by the quick reaction of a novel river monitoring system.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)’s Organic Detection System focuses on cooperating with water utilities along the river to detect organic compounds spilled along any of its 981 miles. It has detected volatile contaminants from many unreported chemical spills and releases. The ODS program ultimately protects drinking water by addressing pollution at the source.

In the case of the Beaver River derailment, the ODS was able to track the ethanol’s denaturing compounds, beginning at the Weirton, W.Va. site, 40 miles from where the spill entered the river.

“Source water protection, very shortly, is protecting the directing water utilities that make drinking water by protecting the source water they draw from,” said Jerry Schulte, ORSANCO’s Manager of Source Water Protection and Emergency Response.

To keep a finger on the pulse of the Ohio River’s water quality, ORSANCO, based in Cincinnati, has 15 monitoring sites at drinking water utilities and industrial partners from just above its beginning near Pittsburgh to Paducah, Kentucky at River Mile 930. The Ohio River is unique in that it has a definitive starting point at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, making it easy to number by river miles – and easy for ORSANCO to place ODS sites along its length.

“Basically, we have the whole river bugged,” Schulte said.

Predating the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act, ORSANCO was established in 1948, a year when the river’s water quality was, as Schulte put it, “abysmal.”

Since that time and through the combined efforts of the eight states that created ORSANCO, the organization has made tremendous strides in the water quality of the 204,000 square mile Ohio River watershed. The water quality has improved so much that there are now more than 130 different species of fish living in the Ohio River. The river has hosted both the Bassmasters and the FLW Outdoors national bass tournaments in recent years.

At a bare-bones minimum, each participating facility must process one raw water sample every day of the year to check for the presence of organic compounds. Most sites perform several tests daily; last year, participating facilities analyzed 4,228 raw river samples. At least one sample a day has been processed since 1978, when the ODS program began after a massive unreported carbon tetrachloride spill contaminated drinking water intakes from Huntington, W.Va to Louisville, Ky.

ORSANCO is in the process of updating the ODS equipment, adding automated sampling to its sites, allowing 24-hour monitoring so facility operators can evaluate data received after a full night’s rest.

To receive automated data quickly, NexSens Technology installed iSIC data loggers at each ODS site along the Ohio River and at the ORSANCO headquarters. The iSICs use DSL and cellular telemetry, a significant upgrade from the dial-up ORSANCO was using, cutting download time from an hour to approximately 10 seconds. The iChart software installed on site computers interrogates the data loggers and stores measurements in a database that can be accessed by any other project sites or from an operator’s home.

“The amount of support we need to provide to each site is unique so having that two-way capability is ideal for a system that runs a 1,000-mile long river,” Schulte said.
Each site uses gas chromatography to identify and quantify organic chemicals in the water. This process separates the compounds out by weight with the results resembling an EKG machine graph. Each peak in the chromatogram represents a different compound and, depending on the peak, an event that may require immediate action from ORSANCO or the drinking water utility.

Many chemicals the ODS program tests for have Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) established by the EPA. Detection levels for all regulated volatile organics detected by the ODS are well below the MCLs. If a chemical is detected above its MCL, the drinking water utility is required to contact ORSANCO. Schulte or another ORSANCO member can access that site’s data and verify if the detection is valid – as advanced as the technology is, humans cannot be replaced.

“A litany of things can cause a false positive,” Schulte said.

Schulte explained that their current detection system can only report what it has been calibrated to report. As part of the ODS upgrade, the gas chromatogram with mass spectrometer will be replaced with a mass spectrometer which will give system operators a percent confidence level for each detected compound. This will reduce the amount of guesswork needed from the human side of the operation.

In addition to detecting unreported releases, the ODS program can also track reported chemical releases so drinking water facilities know when the chemical plume will hit their location – and implement countermeasures. In these cases, ORSANCO usually knows what chemical they are looking for because it has been reported. Such was the situation in the Beaver River train derailment.

ORSANCO staff used river velocity information from the National Weather Service to predict the progress of the contaminant plume and communicated the time of travel to the downstream water utilities. Because of this, drinking water utilities were able to implement additional treatment steps or close their intakes until the plume passed. The ODS equipment tracked the ethanol plume for approximately 300 miles until it was diluted by a heavy rain near Huntington, W.Va.

The great success of the ODS program is partially due to the cooperation among and between the drinking water utilities. Larger utilities will often run water tests for smaller utilities with a lower capacity to run complex tests in a contamination event. The cooperation also allows facilities to treat the water as it comes in, often powered with activated carbon. The ODS program is envied worldwide, Schulte said.

“This is one of the premier systems in the world for source water protection,” Schulte said. “At least every month I get a call from a drinking water utility in the United States asking about our system, what we’ve done and how we’ve put this together.”

He’s also traveled to China and the Netherlands to talk about the ODS program. For many, it serves as a deterrent to draining and dumping into the river. At times, Schulte said, system operators and commission staff have gone out in a boat after a detection event and identified the specific pipe from which the contaminant was flowing and stemmed the flow.

“When you have that ability, a detection system like this is a deterrent and people are inclined to not do things,” Schulte said.

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