Reprinted with permission of the Independence Daily Reporter
As I sit down to write my weekly column, my first thoughts are of gratitude. I’m constantly reminded of how lucky Annie and I are to be members of this amazing community and Southeast Kansas.
I hope you’ve already heard that at 1:10 a.m. this morning, the City of Independence received the “All Clear” to start processing water through our treatment plant. I am sure that everyone in the city will agree with me that it has been a long time since I have looked forward to a shower so much.
But even more than my first shower in 48 hours, I’m most grateful to our amazing city staff, and the entire community of water users for pitching in to help in an emergency.
As you know, the Airosol Company in Neodesha had a major explosion and fire on Tuesday morning. First and foremost, I praise God that no one was killed.
As is wonderfully typical for southeast Kansas, fire fighters from many surrounding towns and counties came to help to battle the fire. Unfortunately, millions of gallons of water and flame retardant were used to battle the blaze. Much of that water from the fire hoses, mixed with an assortment of unknown chemicals from the plant, washed into the Verdigris River.
KDHE was at the scene very quickly, and officials immediately let the downstream cities know what was happening. Their experts informed our city staff that it would take until 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, before the first traces of the possibly contaminated water could reach the point where Independence draws out the river water to make our water supply.
As a result, our city employees immediately started running our water plant at full capacity, treating enough water so that all our tanks would be completely full. Our plan was to then turn off the treatment plant for as many days as necessary, until we got the “All Clear” to restart water treatment.
I want to be completely clear on this point: we shut down our water plant BEFORE any chemicals from the disaster could enter our supply.
We hoped that the storage capacity could make it through the emergency, but that seemed extremely unlikely. If system pressure is allowed to drop too low, then it must be assumed that dirty ground water, or contaminations of some type, could enter our system. For this reason, if any water system ever drops below 20 psi, the State (and good sense) require that we issue a Boil Order, letting everyone know that the water cannot be assumed safe. The Boil Order must remain in place for a minimum of five days, until extensive testing can be completed.
At the City Commission meeting on Tuesday night, the commissioners voted unanimously to ask Independence residents to begin curtailing water usage. We just had no idea how long it would be before we would have safe water in the river once again.
We also made the decision to have another city commission meeting on Wednesday evening. At that meeting, we found that our water consumption overnight had been much higher than expected. I must say that the meeting Wednesday evening was terribly sobering, as the difficult decision was made to shut down all water supply to large water users, including industries, car washes, restaurants, etc. Disaster response personnel from the state were there advising us to be ready for any emergency. Plans were also discussed to have nine semi-trailer loads of bottled water delivered to the city to hand out to residents, as well as plans for non-potable water to be used for flushing toilets. City employees, as well as countless volunteers from Independence and surrounding communities, started passing out water to anyone who needed it at ICC West and at the temporary City Hall on Wednesday night, and continued this around the clock.
Unfortunately, our water tower levels continued to drop and the outlook was even more bleak. City staff were told to cancel their Thanksgiving plans and many were called back from planned travels. Many city employees had been working essentially 24 hours a day since Tuesday.
Thanksgiving morning, our crisis management team had a conference call with Governor Brownback, along with many experts around the state. Also on the call were crisis management teams from Neodesha and Coffeyville. The water experts let us know that every test of water samples taken at Independence and Coffeyville had come back clear, although the chemical levels originally tested at Neodesha were much higher than acceptable levels in several key chemicals. They would not give us approval to come back on line, as there had been traces of ethylene glycol detected at Neodesha. They wanted to run tests for this one final chemical on the samples taken at Independence and Coffeyville.
Unfortunately, the closest firm they could find to run these tests on Thanksgiving Day was in Dallas. So samples taken at Independence and Coffeyville were flown on a private plane to Dallas to be tested during the night.
Independence water tower levels continued to fall and it was clear that our remaining supplies of water wouldn’t last long enough. At that point, the decision was made to begin a door-to-door campaign to ask everyone in Independence to stop using water, as this seemed to be our only chance to avoid the “Boil Order.” The city was sectioned off and city employees, including police and fire fighters, along with volunteers, spent the next eight hours attempting to knock on every door in town, asking everyone to stop using water. What a way to spend Thanksgiving Day!
The citizens stepped up their efforts in an amazing way.
During Thanksgiving evening and night, virtually no water was removed from the towers; usage was so small as to be undetectable by the employees at the water plant.
Then, this morning at 1:10 am, city staff (many of whom had been working without sleep for about 72 hours) got word that the final tests of our water samples were all clear; no traces of ethylene glycol were detected.
Our city workers re-started our plant by 1:30 a.m. and were pumping clean, clear, beautiful water into our storage tanks by about 6:00 a.m.
And, miraculously, the level in our tanks never got below that critical level. All I can say is “Thank you God and way to go Indy!” Our city staff are still running “flat out” to insure that we have enough water to take those showers we skipped, flush our toilets, and wash the rest of the Thanksgiving pots and pans.
Indy is going to be just fine.
A couple people have asked me for a list of which chemicals were dumped into the river. Unfortunately, I just don’t have an answer for that. As far as I’m aware, the EPA has not released that information at this point, but we will certainly provide that information to the public if and when it’s made available.
What I do have is a very thankful heart.
We experienced no panic or disorderly conduct, as the state warned us to prepare for. Instead, every single citizen I met took the situation in stride, often saying, “Hey, we’ve been through much worse, this is nothing.”
We had an amazing, incredibly professional crisis management team led by Micky Webb, Dave Cowan, Terry Lybarger, Kelly Passeur, and Jerry Harrison. We had countless other wonderful city employees working essentially around the clock from Tuesday through Friday without complaint.
We had families of city employees changing their Thanksgiving plans and being supportive.
We had a town that said, loud and clear, “Yes, I will do my part to help out.”
I love this city.
Mayor Gary Hogsett