Local water system tracking latex spill down Potomac River

WASHINGTON — Local water and health officials are closely monitoring the accidental release of 10,000 gallons of a synthetic form of latex, as a pollution plume makes its way down the Potomac River, a major drinking water source in the D.C. area.

The Sept. 24 spill occurred in Allegany County, Maryland, when a worker for the Memphis-based Verso Corp. failed to close a drain line on a 26,500-gallon storage tank that was being filled from a railroad tank car at the Verso paper mill in Luke, Maryland, approximately 200 miles upstream from Washington.

Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for Maryland’s Department of the Environment, says the spill does not appear to pose health concerns for humans or aquatic life.

After a lab tested water samples, it reported to MDE Tuesday that its analysis showed no detection of styrene, the primary constituent of concern. The lab results also showed no evidence of butadiene, another constituent of concern. MDE is awaiting additional laboratory results for additional water samples.

Apperson says because the substance is in the water column of a flowing river, it is not possible to contain the spill or to remove it from the water. It is expected that the substance will continue to flow down the river and become diluted, as it flows toward Cumberland, Hagerstown, Frederick, Point of Rocks and Washington.

MDE says it will continue to gather additional information, including data from water sampling and monitoring.

Verso Corp. Spokeswoman Kathi Rowzi says the chemical was a synthetic form of latex, posing no allergy threat for people sensitive to natural rubber. She says the substance was half water and half styrene-butadiene, a paper coating.

Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct tells WTOP “There is no direct threat to our drinking water supply at this time, but we are continuing to monitor the situation closely.”

The Washington Aqueduct is a wholesale water supplier, serving D.C., Arlington County, the City of Falls Church and parts of Fairfax County.

Samples have been collected upstream and are being analyzed, he says.

As the plume makes its way down the Potomac, Jacobus says the facility “will analyze the effectiveness of the water treatment process in removing the latex compound and if necessary alter that treatment to improve its effectiveness.”

“MDE expects that water treatment facilities will be able to treat the water to remove the substance,” Apperson said.

Jacobus says with significant rain in the Potomac River Basin predicted this week, the river’s flow rate will increase.

“The effect of this will be to move the plume more quickly toward our intakes but it will also greatly reduce its concentration and further mix it in the water — both of which will work to our advantage,” Jacobus says.

The spill prompted Paw Paw, West Virginia, to close its water intake Sunday before the milky green plume arrived. The town stored enough water to supply customers until Tuesday morning, when experts say the plume will have passed.

According to Apperson, the state environmental agency “is not aware of any fish kills or impacts to fish or other wildlife that would indicate toxicity in the water resulting from the discharge.”

Brent Walls, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, concurs “in this instance, it’s not a huge threat,” but Walls believes “the response could have been quicker and faster than it has been.”

“It took at least four days for the MDE to receive the chemical makeup of the pollutant,” according to Walls. “If there’s going to be any kind of handling of any chemical along the river banks, all the emergency parties should all have that information of the potential hazards.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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