Come PCBs or Ebola, Spartanburg Water Is Ready

Crisis management begins with a strong foundation. At Spartanburg Water, that foundation led the utility through a PCB contamination crisis and, later, made the utility a leader in Ebola preparation.
Come PCBs or Ebola, Spartanburg Water Is Ready
In 2013, Spartanburg Water dealt with PCB contamination. Shown here is the Fairforest Reclaimed Water Treatment Plant, where the utility had to do a small scale cleanup of a storage tank that held PCB-tainted sludge.

Interested in Dewatering/Biosolids?

Get Dewatering/Biosolids articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Dewatering/Biosolids + Get Alerts

“Do the right thing” is more than a platitude for our children. The concept has real, bottom-line consequences, which can carry a utility through crisis.

At Spartanburg Water, which serves customers in northwestern South Carolina, that philosophy led the utility through a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) contamination problem in 2013 and established it as a leading agency during the Ebola crisis in 2014.

The PCB crisis
In June 2013, while Spartanburg Water profiled sludge for disposal in a landfill, tests showed positive results for PCBs. PCBS were once used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment before being banned by Congress in 1979 because of adverse health effects.

“At first we didn’t believe it because we’d never seen PCBs anywhere in our process,” says John Westcott, Spartanburg Water’s special projects manager.

He said the utility had profiled its sludge for many years and had never had PCB hits.

He had “no reason to believe there was a PCB source; no industries that use them.”

Turning to the utility’s emergency response plan, Westcott says the utility notified “all the regulators that might have a stake in [the PCB problem]. We informed them of the situation and started getting their input.”

Spartanburg also used the ERP’s protocols to put the right internal resources and staff together and to identify external help as needed.

Safety first
The utility also has a strong health and safety program, which it relied on to deal with the PCBs.

“We have a detailed process for identifying hazards and pairing that with appropriate personal protection equipment,” Westcott says. “There’s always some concern from employees when they find out there’s a hazardous substance. One of the things you hear early on is, ‘Could this hurt me? What are you doing to protect me from it?’

“You go through and look at the physical properties of what you’re trying to protect them from. With the PCBs, we enlisted the assistance of an industrial hygiene firm to get some additional insight into appropriate [PPE] products.”

Tests showed employees would not be exposed to PCBs through inhalation because vapor pressure of the chemicals is too low.

“We sampled in areas where the concentration was highest and got nothing as far as airborne contaminants, which is what you’d expect,” Westcott says.

The organization’s commitment to safety played a part, too.

“We’ve always put employee safety right at the very top of our priority list,” Westcott says. “We want everybody to go home with all of their fingers and toes and faculties and have a happy life unimpaired by something that happened at work.

“We put a lot of time, effort and emphasis into our safety program, do a lot of staff training and do really good hazard assessments. That includes PPE assessment procedures and anything we can do through engineering to make this a safer place to work.”

Regulator partnerships
Westcott says the utility’s commitment to communicating with regulators also affected how it dealt with PCB contamination.

“We try always to keep good working relationships with the regulators. We’ve established a reputation that we will do whatever’s required to comply and be good stewards of the environment,” he says. “Relationships are very helpful when bad things happen.” Westcott says Spartanburg spent a long time working back and forth with regulators and communicating with area utilities that had also experienced contamination.

“We didn’t want to contaminate the stream or the ground, and we didn’t want to store hazardous material forever,” he says. “We needed a solution that was compliant with applicable regulations and that wouldn’t bankrupt us.”

In the end, Spartanburg Water and other affected utilities negotiated an emergency regulation that let them dewater the sludge on site and treat the water and discharge it to the receiving stream without contaminating it, leaving only dried sludge to be disposed in a PCB-permitted landfill.

Prepared for Ebola
Because Spartanburg Water had developed a comprehensive PPE list when dealing with the PCB contamination, the agency became the go-to utility nationwide during the Ebola scare in 2014.

“The PCB and Ebola scares were both situations in which things happened almost in slow motion,” Westcott says. “The PCB [incident] was sudden, but once you have the material isolated from your treatment stream, you have time to think it through and make sure you’re doing the right stuff.

“When the Ebola scare came, there was no risk of exposure because there were no active cases in the area, so we had time to think it through and make logical decisions rather than just reacting suddenly.

“I think there’s a value in thinking about things that haven’t happened, working through ‘What would we do if this happened?’ and getting that down on paper. Then you have something you can look at if there’s a true emergency. You don’t have to start from scratch.”

About the author
Steve Frank is a public relations consultant serving the water/wastewater community in the Rocky Mountain West. He was formerly the PIO at Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver. He can be reached on twitter @sdfrankapr, or or at 303/347-1006.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.