Beaver County unaware of potential threat to drinking water
Several state and federal agencies failed to communicate about a threat to drinking water in Beaver County last month, raising questions about emergency communication across state lines, officials and experts said.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the state police, the region's U.S. Coast Guard district and 15 other agencies received notice within 24 hours of illegal dumping Jan. 31 that Ohio investigators witnessed in Youngstown, federal records show. It appears in the days that followed none of them told the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or two Beaver County drinking water suppliers downstream, state officials said.
The pollution probably diluted in the Mahoning River, but investigators don't fully know the extent of the risk, said Chris Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
The communication breakdown led to finger-pointing among agencies and frustrated local officials across Beaver County, where 17,000 customers drink the water. Pennsylvania officials blamed Ohio for using only the National Response Center to send alerts out of state. The DEP was not signed up to receive alerts from the NRC, a federal agency primarily responsible only for notifying other federal responders, its operations officer Lt. Andrew Kennedy said.
Agencies in both states and the federal agencies in the region all deserve some blame, said Louise Comfort, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Disaster Management. DEP officials should have known and been signed up for the alerts, but other agencies should have passed critical information to DEP officials, she said.
“I think it's a real mistake,” Comfort said. “This may not have posed a serious threat, but there are likely certain to be more serious threats ... and I think we need to have a very good communication system in place for potential threats.”
The problem stems from Youngstown's Hardrock Excavating LLC. Federal prosecutors indictedthe company, its owner and another worker last week, accusing them of dumping brine and oil-based drilling mud in a Mahoning River tributary from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31. Samples showed signs of the carcinogen benzene along with toluene and chlorides in public water, Abbruzzese said.
The Mahoning enters Pennsylvania in Lawrence County, where it flows into the Beaver River and then the Ohio. The Beaver Falls Municipal Authority's manager has said the dumping may have fouled the water his plant gets from the Beaver, but he learned of it only from news reports five days after Ohio investigators spotted the dumping.
“That's a big problem,” said Rob Matzie, D-Ambridge, one of several Beaver County lawmakers to echo Comfort's criticism. “You would think there'd be interstate communications, especially when you have waterways or tributaries that cross state lines.”
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the agency will sign up for the alerts. It had relied on PEMA to pass on important alerts, he added.
In this case, the alert never came because the NRC's details were so poor, Sunday said. It did not list a river mile marker to let PEMA officials know the contamination happened close to the border, and it said there was no water supply contamination.
“The NRC notifications are only as good as the information contained in them, and the emergency report for this incident from NRC in this case contained vague and contradictory information,” Sunday said in an email. “When there is an environmental issue in a neighboring state, there is no substitute for direct communication from the neighboring state.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.