Follow-up on the case of the Potomac "green goo"

Recently, the state of Maryland released this information on the MDE web site on the spill of latex into the Potomac River:

The Maryland Department of the Environment received reports on September 24, 2015, of a yellow/white coloration in the North Branch Potomac River. MDE sent an investigator to the site and the Department also contacted the Verso paper mill and the Upper Potomac River Commission plant that treats wastewater from the paper mill. The paper mill said the mill had an approximately 10,000 gallon spill of latex, which is used for paper coating, over a four-hour period after off-loading of a rail car and that the spill was discharged through their collection system to the Upper Potomac River Commission plant.

According to information provided by the Verso paper mill to MDE, the substance that was discharged is Latex CP 620NA, manufactured by Trinseo LLC.

According to information from the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet:

The product is not a hazardous chemical as defined under U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

The components of the material are styrene-butadiene based polymer and water.
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.

In keeping with the Department’s practice for spills and discharges, MDE notified the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin for notification to drinking water facilities not only in Maryland but in Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

MDE’s primary focus at this time is to ensure that public health and the environment are protected. Information available to MDE at this time does not indicate a health concern. MDE continues to work to obtain additional information, including laboratory analysis of water samples collected from affected locations of the river.

Laboratory results received to date have shown no detection of styrene, the primary constituent of concern, and no evidence of butadiene, another constituent of concern. MDE has provided the laboratory testing results to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. MDE will continue to provide information to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and drinking water systems.

Sample results have been posted as well.  Samples were collected at three different time points at three different locations (so understanding any temporal or spatial trends in the data will not be possible) ... on Sept 25, 26 and 29 at Pinto (Maryland), Route 28 bridge crossing and Bonds Landing, respectively.  

It appears that only a single sample was taken each day from each location and these were analyzed using standard EPA analytical methods for a wide number of volatiles, semivolatiles, metals and standard water chemistry parameters.  It appears to have been a tag-team effort between Maryland Department of the Environment and the EPA Region 3 in terms of the sample collection (and it should be noted from a regulatory geek perspective, only the MDE-collected samples has "chain of custody" paperwork associated with it...)

Data summary from the MDE page focuses on styrene and 1,3-butadiene, which are the major building blocks of the latex polymer that spilled into the river.  It is good to verify the concentrations of these; however, a quick review of available data on environmental fate & transport reveals that much of the volatile component of the mixture would off-gas from the water as it traveled down the river channel.  What wasn't done was to look at the potential for degradants that form in the water column once they come into contact with any chemical constituents.  But the polymer wasn't expected to degrade signficantly according to the MSDS sheet.

Even though the potential danger has now passed and was a fairly low-level hazard/threat to begin with, this incident points out some obvious gaps in the response and communication process across states.  Even though Maryland and West Virginia share the same source of drinking water (Potomac River), it appears as if Maryland didn't feel alerting the neighbors on the other side of the water was a very high priority.  I was passed back and forth between county and state in trying to get answers from the state of Maryland in the days following the release.  The state of West Virginia never bothered to respond, once the country referred me to the state.  In fact, it took multiple attempts after the fact to get the public web site info listed above from Maryland.  Similarly, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin didn't respond to my attempts to get information even though it clearly had been given the testing results (as claimed by the state of Maryland).

Who loses in this situation? THE CONSUMER. The END USER.  We *deserve* the information. Governments on all level who supply or protect drinking water should be more forthcoming with information to its constituents following emergencies like this.  Despite the physiographic differences among them.