"She's an environmental Paul Revere," Jeanette Neagu's husband George says, with genuine admiration in his voice. We're sitting in the Neagu's living room, on the west side of Michigan City, Indiana. There's a large screen television mounted in the corner. Jeanette is about to show me the PowerPoint presentation about aboveground chemical storage tanks that, two days before, she presented at a National League of Women Voters conference in Dallas, Texas.
Jeanette Neagu was born in Chicago in 1939. When she was 15, her parents moved her and her three siblings to Ogden Dunes in Indiana, on the Lake Michigan shore. Dorothy Buell, the founding mother of Save the Dunes, the organization that, with the help of Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, led the charge to create the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, lived across the street. The families became friends; Jeanette became an activist.
When Jeanette was a teenager, she launched her own Save the Dunes petition drive, standing outside Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History with a clipboard and a postcard showing the Indiana lakeshore. "I got thousands of signatures," she laughs, "but they were from Hong Kong and Norway. I had a worldwide campaign!"
Jeanette testified before Congress on the importance of the Dunes when she was 20. Eventually she would serve as Save the Dunes' president. Now she acts as Natural Resource Chair for the League of Women Voters of Indiana.
It was in early January of this year that Jeanette, along with the rest of us, started getting the news about a massive chemical spill in the Elk River running through Charleston, West Virginia. "That was a shock," she says. "Three hundred thousand people can't use their water? My sister used to live in West Virginia, so I've been through that area many, many, many times."
The spill was first noticed in Charleston, West Virginia's capitol city, on the morning of January 9. An odor people described as smelling like licorice filled the air. The mayor smelled it on his way to work. At first, he thought it must be a discharge coming from a local chemical plant. But when he tasted the water at a drinking fountain, he knew there was trouble.
It was about this time that West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began getting calls from people saying their water tasted weird and smelled bad.
The smell was traced to an aboveground storage tank, located at a truck terminal next to the Elk River, which supplies drinking water for people living in and around Charleston. The tank, built in 1938, was about a mile and a half from Charleston's surface water intake center.
When inspectors arrived at the tank, they found a chemical stream, four feet wide. A containment area, built of cement blocks, had been set around the tank, but it had not been maintained, and was overrun. The tank itself was corroded through.
That tank was used to store a chemical, crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), used for washing coal. "We don't know a lot about that chemical," says Jeanette. "Three things it says on the fact sheet for MCHM: Do not inhale, do not let it touch your skin and do not digest. They know enough not to do those things. But what happened in Charleston is they inhaled it, they bathed in water contaminated with it and they drank it."
The day passed without a warning to the public. The water company, American Water, was confident their filters could handle whatever was coming in. It wasn't until late that afternoon that they realized the filters were overloaded and DEP issued a public warning to stop using the water.
"That whole day, restaurants had been serving water, people made formula for their babies using the water," says Jeanette. "People started going to the hospitals because they got rashes and they were getting nauseous."
The chemical plume that seeped through the ground into the Elk River would eventually find its way to the Ohio River. In Cincinnati, they shut off their water intake for a day as the plume passed by.
Six months later, in Charleston, people remain concerned about the safety of their water; 60 percent of citizens in the nine counties affected say they are still using bottled water.
"This got me very concerned about chemical safety," says Jeanette. And, being Jeanette, she did something. First she started finding out about the state of chemical storage tanks in Indiana. Then she got on the phone.
Virtues of vigilance
In Indiana there are 9,581 aboveground storage tanks. Of these, 8,685 are not subject to regular governmental inspection. Indiana's inspection program applies to petroleum tanks, when they are constructed, and to tanks containing fertilizers and pesticides.
As to all those other tanks, Jeanette discovered a kind of Alphonse and Gaston situation, in which confusion reigns regarding who is doing what and where responsibility lies. When she called the Emergency Management Team headquarters in Michigan City and asked if they knew the condition of tanks in their area, their representative told her: "The LaPorte Fire Marshall and the Michigan City Fire Department do the inspections. So I called the Fire Marshall and he said, 'We don't inspect those tanks. We don't know where they are; we wouldn't even know what to look for. ' " ... He also told me they have no authority. They can't tell the company to fix it."
Indiana is not alone in this. Only 13 states regularly inspect all of their aboveground tanks. This is significant because where regular inspections have been instituted, plenty of problems have been discovered, enough to conclude that when left to themselves, tank companies cannot be relied upon to police themselves.
Minnesota initiated a rigorous aboveground tank inspection policy ten years ago in response to a boom in ethanol production. "Minnesota said we can't have these huge tanks with stuff that's that dangerous without knowing their condition," says Jeanette. When Minnesota's inspection began, 90 percent of tanks were found to have problems. Now that number has been reduced to 2 percent on an annual basis.
New York State employs a team of 20 aboveground tank inspectors. Jeanette says, "I asked them, what do they find? We want to know if this worth doing, and they said 10-20 percent of tanks are not in compliance."
Jeanette believes that the biggest obstacle to making Hoosiers safe from a Charleston-like catastrophe may be public ignorance. Aboveground tanks are so familiar they become a virtually invisible part of the landscape. Either that, or they are located in obscure places where the public doesn't generally go.
But thanks to the Right-to-Know Act, the public can gain access to a census that shows where tanks are located and what they are used for. Armed with this information, they can then ask local public officials to determine a given tank's condition. They can also bring questions to their local water department, like, in the event of a spill, what's the plan?
Indiana wake-up call
Bruno Pigott, Assistant Commissioner of Water Quality at the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management (IDEM), says he has never met Jeanette Neagu in person but, thanks to their frequent phone contact, feels like he knows her. "She's taken time to really investigate [aboveground storage tanks] and she's pretty practical," he says. "She's a really good person."
Pigott agrees that the Elk River spill was a kind of wake-up call. "What the West Virginia incident did was to make us come back and say, 'let's see what else we can do to make sure our drinking water sources are protected and the regulations sufficient, and let's go out and evaluate the state of the tanks that do exist.' "
IDEM has itself used the Right-to-Know Act to quantify and locate existing tanks in Indiana. It has also taken what Pigott calls a "multi-media approach," creating a pool of inspectors that combines both water quality and land quality inspectors on a unified team.
Pigott says there are 4,500 drinking water systems in Indiana, of which 34 rely on surface water like, for instance, the White River. IDEM is now determining where tanks are in relation to surface water systems. "We boiled that down to about 2,600 [tanks]. Then we looked even more specifically at which could be considered in Zone 1, or 25 miles upstream of a surface water intake and about a quarter mile wide on each side of the waterway: 450 tanks at 120 facilities.
"Our idea is we can work our way through this big number of above-ground storage tanks, looking at the places where they would most likely be immediately impacting drinking water facilities, and then working our way out through succeeding zones."
IDEM is preparing a survey to send to tank owners that asks what their response plan looks like, what's in it and whether or not it needs to be updated.
"After the West Virginia events, we thought it would be good to devise an approach that would allow us to figure out what preparations are people putting in place at the facilities and what preventive measures are being taken at drinking water facilities.
"The first idea is you get out there and assess the state of the tanks, whether they have sufficiently put together their response plans under our regulations. The second is to contact our drinking water facilities that use surface water and look at the plans that they've put together to deal with emergencies, and work with each of them to bolster the plans where they need to be bolstered."
Pigott says his concerns go beyond those inspired by aboveground tanks to include a wide variety of possible sources of drinking water contamination. "A tanker truck that goes over a water body that feeds the drinking water system can be a threat just as much as an aboveground storage tank."
Local emergency planning committees are key players. IDEM seeks to inform them about the presence of tanks in their communities and connect them with tank owners and drinking water systems. "They will be, in some respects, the first responders in the event of an incident."
IDEM is reviewing its regulations with special attention to secondary containment — like that cement block wall encircling the tank in Charleston that failed. "Do we provide enough direction in our regulations?" asks Pigott. "Are there things about the regulations that could be improved?"
"Here's the thing that strikes me," says Pigott. "For Hoosiers, on a daily basis, we turn on the tap and we expect, and get, clean, safe, drinking water. It's a very rare event that you can't count on that. Sometimes we take so much for granted that when something like what happened in West Virginia happens it's a reminder of how important that resource is to us, and the importance of protecting it."
"If this were hazardous waste being regulated, there would be very stringent requirements for recording, follow-up, storage, handling, cleanup and those types of things," says Kim Ferraro, an attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, of many aboveground tanks. "But because this is considered chemical storage, instead of waste storage, even though it can be equally harmful, the requirements are less."
Ferraro thinks there are several things that could improve what she calls, "a very complicated regulatory framework with several gaps."
In the first place, she would like to see the creation of an easy-to-use public database, making it simpler for citizens to search and get information about tanks and what is being stored in their neighborhoods. "It provides that public input that creates political pressure to ultimately get things done."
Ferraro would also like to see a permit process that takes into account the unique circumstances of specific sites and beefs up storage requirements where risk is potentially greater.
She also thinks the Safe Drinking Water Act could come into play. "Local water utilities already do quite a bit in their local watersheds to treat and protect and provide safe drinking water."
Citizens Energy Group manages the water supply in Indianapolis. When asked to compare Indianapolis and Charleston, Citizens Water spokesperson Sarah Holsapple responded via email: "In general, Indianapolis' water supply is less vulnerable to the issues faced in West Virginia and other utilities due to our size and interconnections with multiple treatment plants. We also have monitoring systems and sampling plans that help our ability to detect any potential issues with our supply sources."
Holsapple says a key advantage in Indy is thanks to the White River North Treatment Plant being upstream of the main White River treatment facility. This makes it possible to detect issues impacting source water in advance. All Indianapolis water treatment plants operate on a 24-hour, 7-day a week schedule.
Citizens has an emergency plan in place, as well as chemical spill contingency plans in the event of a spill detection or notification. Citizens also conducts its own periodic assessments of security and vulnerability.
Finally, if a member of the public thinks there is an issue with a water supply source, Holsapple says they are encouraged to call Citizens' customer service number (317-924-3311).
In the meantime, Jeanette Neagu continues to collect information, make phone calls and present her findings at public meetings. Most of all, she asks questions: "What is your state's action plan? What are the regulations to prevent spills from aboveground chemical storage tanks? Are the emergency plans adequate to contain a spill? How many tanks are close to surface water?"
Referring to the 8,685 tanks in Indiana that, so far, have not been subject to inspection, Jeanette says, "We don't know anything about these tanks as a state. That makes us extremely vulnerable."
As her husband George says: it's also made her a kind of Paul Revere.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
Jeanette Neagu took NUVO photographer Martin Buechley on a tour of some of the aboveground tanks located in her hometown of Michigan City. Neagu is unaware of the contents and condition of
these tanks. That's part of the problem. Neagu says: "These tanks are within two miles of Lake Michigan. Should there be a spill from them, the Lake Michigan watershed would definitely be impacted."