Successful ORSANCO Organic Detection System Expands Into Elk River, Charleston

By on February 22, 2018

In 1960, ORSANCO's Robot Monitors resembled a large filing cabinet. (Credit: ORSANCO)

Since 1978, water quality experts have been applying technological advancements to rivers and tributaries in the Ohio River Valley in an effort to stave off the worst possible water emergencies—with a large measure of success. In the latest expansion of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) Organic Detection System (ODS), a new water quality monitoring station in the Elk River will help American Water Company officials in Charleston, West Virginia to more readily identify contaminants in the river and prevent public health disasters.

Defining the need

The ORSANCO ODS system has been protecting water quality by detecting pollution at its source in real-time for decades. In October of 2006, a derailed train pitched 23 cars carrying ethanol into the Beaver River, a tributary of the Ohio River. The ODS system picked up the denaturing compounds in the ethanol about 40 miles from the spill’s entry point into the river. Flash forward to 2017, when the ODS system helped officials monitor water quality in the Ohio River during and after a week-long plastics warehouse fire burned out of control in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

By 2012, the system had 15 monitoring sites along about 930 miles of river in eight states. The combined effect of these sites was the protection of the water quality of the entire 204,000 square mile Ohio River watershed.

However, compared to current protocols and technology, the 2012 ODS was less sophisticated. Each participating facility had to test at least one raw water sample for organic compounds each day of the year. Most of the sites tested several times daily at that stage, and in 2011, the facilities processed 4,228 raw river samples.

The reason for this vigilance is clear. By 2013, the US EPA Toxic Release Inventory National Analysis cited the Ohio River as the nation’s most polluted. That year, various sources discharged approximately 23 million pounds of chemicals into the river, as barges, hydropower installations, wastewater treatment plants, factories, and agricultural runoff all impacted this working river. The river’s 25 trillion gallons means that the chemical content of the waterway stays highly diluted, keeping it is safe for recreation, aquatic life, and even drinking water. ORSANCO is the organization that ensures that the water stays safe, and the monitoring work across the eight partner states for bacteria, chemical compounds, dissolved oxygen levels, metals, nutrients, organic compounds, and other water quality parameters is a mammoth job.


ORSANCO sampling sites. (Credit: ORSANCO)

According to the EPA, nitrates are the biggest polluter in the Ohio River, but just one of 31 distinct parameters the ODS team monitors. As of 2015, manual sampling at 14 sites along major tributaries and 15 dams along the river helped the team manage environmental threats such as algae growth from high nutrient levels in the water. The team also steps up bacterial monitoring during recreation season as part of their proactive plan for water safety.

From a fascinating history to current cutting edge tech

Prior to the Organics Detection System (ODS), ORSANCO developed an automated monitoring system which was a precursor to the ODS. In 1960, ORSANCO’s “Robot Monitors” resembled large filing cabinets. This large network of instruments measured seven water quality parameters as river water flowed through the unit: chloride, dissolved oxygen, hydrogen-ion, oxidation-reduction potential, solar radiation, specific conductance, and temperature.

In 1978, ORSANCO and technology partners developed the ODS. Lisa Cochran, ORSANCO Communications Coordinator, explains that while the basic idea of collecting and processing raw water samples for analysis via purge and trap remains the same, new technologies have enhanced the system.

“Of course, the ability to identify volatile contaminants in the river has become more efficient with data analytics processing software and improvements to instrumentation over the years,” Cochran states. “In September 2016, ORSANCO completed the upgrade of the ODS with the addition of two new host sites and three types of gas chromatographic (GC) instrumentation: research grade benchtop gas chromatographs with FID, research grade gas chromatograph with MSD, and an on-line process GC.”

The new Elk River site is one of the two new sites, equipped with cutting edge instrumentation.

“Using autosamplers and the sample delivery system (on process GC’s) allow for samples to be analyzed unattended, so analysis can continue during times when the laboratory is not staffed and increases the frequency of samples analyzed per day,” Cochran details. “Fondriest Environmental and NexSens Technology were critical partners in enhancing the performance of the organics detection system and its network. Doug Nguyen and Paul Nieberding worked extensively with ORSANCO staff member, Travis Luncan, to integrate communication between ODS host sites and ORSANCO headquarters. Fondriest Environmental, through WQdatalive, customized a website to display current GC data. ODS host participants can access this data, which may be useful when a volatile containing spill or discharge has entered the waterbody.”

As of 2018, many of the basic ODS system details are similar. However, the ODS continues to expand and provide resources to ORSANCO’s partners. Specifically, in addition to the 17 sites, up from 15, there are now a minimum of four samples taken at each site each day rather than one, under normal operating conditions. Whereas in 2012 the sites processed 4,228 samples, in 2017 that number jumped to about 22,000.

Although detection levels vary, an unusual “unknown” detection is typically characterized by a detection of a VOC at 2 ug/L (parts per billion) or greater that is confirmed to be an in-stream substance. Under these conditions, the detection is treated as a spill. Upon completion of confirmation analyses to determine that the detection represents VOCs in the river, ORSANCO will notify the NRC, potentially affected states, and affected water utilities.


Closeup of an outfall containing styrene emptying into Raccoon Creek which empties into the Ohio River. (Credit: By Alexandrowicz, John L., Photographer (NARA record: 8452213) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain)

Cochran provides a more detailed look at how the system works.

“For our GC and GCMS systems, A 40 mL river water sample is collected (at intake depth) and loaded into an autosampler carousel, it is autoinjected into a purge and trap unit, which functions to strip out volatile organics from the liquid matrix and deliver them in gaseous phase to the gas chromatograph,” describes Cochran. “The GC functions to separate volatile mixtures into individual components at specific timed intervals; generally each volatile compound will have a unique relative elution time from the GC system. Using GCMS capabilities, individual volatile compounds are further broken down into distinct molecular fragments similar to fingerprints on an individual for qualitative identification. This allows us to identify ‘unknown’ compounds found on our GC’s beyond the 31 calibrated for.”

Since the system is calibrated for just the 31 compounds, what happens when something “unknown” trips the system? Team members collect a duplicate sample to send to another ODS participating utility or a contract laboratory for identification and quantitation by gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC/MS) analysis. This allows ORSANCO to detect compounds at trace levels, in the parts per billion (ppb) range.

The ODS renovation upgrade that ORSANCO had been preparing for was completed in September 2016. This has changed the current protocol somewhat, as sites move toward automated sampling processes and real-time results. Still, at this point this means more careful human oversight, not less.

“While ODS participants are tasked to process a minimum four samples per day, the need and desire exists to process several samples over a twenty-four hour period,” explains Cochran. “To facilitate this sampling scenario, automated sampling systems have been developed for unattended operation. However, with roughly four times the number of samples collected and analyzed per site, review of the data, without the keen eyes of our ODS host sites, would be an impossible task. We rely heavily on the diligence and cooperative efforts of our host sites to alert ORSANCO staff when occurrences of significance are picked up by the instrumentation.”

Cochran and the ORSANCO team emphasizes the importance of their partners on the waterways in making the ODS system work.

“As a volunteer based program, ORSANCO has relied heavily on the good faith efforts and stewardship from our ODS Host site partners,” Cochran adds. “With limited staff at ORSANCO, the ODS could not operate along the nearly 1,000 mile Ohio River waterbody without their dedicated efforts.”

The greatest successes of the ODS are often unknown to the public, given the nature of the system:

“We often describe the ODS as similar to a home’s smoke detector; it’s a good thing when it doesn’t go off!” Cochran explains.


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