Don’t Drink The Untested Water

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Even without neglect, cost-cutting or carelessness, a private company or government body can get enmeshed in accidental water pollution. Nearly every organisation using water for more than drinking is at risk of causing environmentally damaging water pollution.

– by Isaac Rudik at Compliance Solutions Canada – A Nimonik partner

It seems that every week, the news media carries another report of how either a community water treatment facility or an industrial plant discharge contaminated water either because of equipment failure, improper or inadequate treatment and inspection, or simple carelessness.

The tragic story of what happened in Walkerton, Ontario is a case study on how to do everything wrong. But even without neglect, cost-cutting or carelessness, a private company or public organisation can become enmeshed in creating water pollution by accident.

Take the case of Beaverlodge, British Columbia, a small town not far from Whistler.

It was fined $20,000 after more than 12,000 fish died when an algal bloom feeding on the town’s sewage outflow contaminated a stream. In addition, the community was required to install an aeration system at a cost of over $1-million. The algal bloom went unnoticed during regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance.

Likewise, an Ontario food manufacturing plant was fined after accidentally discharging by-products from disinfectants used in the processing line into a sewage system. At the same time, provincial inspectors found that waste left over during processing also were being disposed of improperly, creating an increased water pollution risk.

In fact, nearly every business or government body that uses water for more than drinking is at risk of causing environmentally damaging water pollution. And although clean-up can be costly, complex and lengthy, preventing the problem from occurring is relatively inexpensive, easy and readily do-able.

Multisource Problems

So many organic and inorganic compounds can cause water pollution that they are easily to overlooked.

Organic water pollutants include:

  • Detergents;
  • Disinfection by-products;
  • Food processing waste;
  • Insecticides and herbicides;
  • Petroleum hydrocarbons, including fuels and lubricants;
  • Industrial solvents;
  • Chlorinated solvents; and
  • Various chemical compounds found in personal hygiene and cosmetic products

As if this isn’t a long enough list, a raft of inorganic water pollutants also pose a hazard:

  • Acidity caused by industrial discharge;
  • Ammonia from food processing waste;
  • Chemical waste as industrial by-products;
  • Fertilizers; and
  • Heavy metals from motor vehicles.

Yet simple sampling and testing can detect potential hazards although the most-common form – so-called “grab sampling” – is considered unreliable by scientists. Scientists gathering this type of data often employ auto-sampler devices that pump increments of water at either time or discharge intervals.

Other common sampling methods include biological testing, checking water temperature and solid material concentration, as well as checking for pH levels, nutrients in the water, metals, oil and grease, pesticides and hydrocarbons.

Cost-Effective Avoidance

Many basic tests are available in kit form. While not always conclusive, they do provide a kind of early warning on any problems that might be emerging.

At the same time, industrial facilities can reduce the risks by installing safe storage containers for compounds that can cause pollution if they leak. Safe handling procedures are a must as is training employees on the proper way to work with potential contaminants. Spill containment devices are both effective and inexpensive – especially when compared to the cost of fines and lawsuits. Finally, it’s incumbent on plant safety officers to monitor spills, report them immediately if one occurs and take fast action to keep a spill from trickling out of control.