An initial wave of emergency repairs is complete, but months--if not years--of additional work is necessary at the District's Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant before all the safety and operational shortcomings can be eliminated, top city officials said yesterday.
The assessment came as Mayor Anthony A. Williams was presented last night with a report on the Southwest Washington plant, which the mayor requested Friday after The Washington Post published an article detailing weaknesses in the plant's toxic chemical accident prevention systems.
"It is a 1940s operation that needs to get into the 1990s, in an expedited manner," said Peter G. LaPorte, the District's director of emergency management, who was busy yesterday afternoon writing the report for Williams.
At least three federal agencies--the Departments of Labor and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency--are joining LaPorte and the D.C. inspector general's office in reviewing operations at the plant.
The initial questions concern how a facility that handles more than 180 tons of liquid chlorine--a substance so toxic that even a small release could kill hundreds of workers--could have failed to properly maintain its gas leak detection and alarm systems, LaPorte said. Basic emergency equipment, such as breathing apparatus, also was missing or not properly maintained.
Many of the critical shortcomings identified in the Post report Friday were fixed before the end of the day, city officials said. But even with those steps, there is a long list of plant equipment that must be modernized and additional enhancements that must be made in plant management, security and emergency response planning before the facility can be considered well run, LaPorte and other city officials said.
In total, an estimated $250 million worth of renovations are needed at Blue Plains, a 60-year-old plant that serves 2 million people in the District and Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties. The EPA has already committed $50 million this year to the modernization effort, which is expected to last for several years.
After the disclosure of the safety-related problems last week, the Water and Sewer Authority is looking for ways to speed up some of the work, such as the $18 million project to replace the chlorine treatment process with a less dangerous chemical, which had been at least three years away.
But the work extends well beyond bricks and mortar, city officials said.
They want to know what went wrong with management at the plant that allowed the safety systems to go unfixed for so long and who, specifically, is responsible. This is one topic that the mayor will ask the inspector general to focus on.
The D.C. fire department's hazardous materials squad has not had a training drill at the Blue Plains plant for three years, LaPorte said--far too long, given the massive stockpile of toxic chemicals there. Drills should be held annually, he said, although he did note that the squad had visited the site in the last year.
Security has already been increased at the plant's front entrance--after a reporter was able to roam the facility one day last week without being stopped or asked for identification--but more work remains to ensure that the site cannot be accessed by people who do not belong there, city officials said.
The city and the federal government also must figure out a better way to provide consistent oversight at the facility, to ensure that safety shortcomings do not quickly return, LaPorte and other city officials said.
One of the problems, LaPorte said, is that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have jurisdiction over local governments. Yet given that the District is not a state, it does not have a fully functioning or empowered local version of OSHA. On Friday, the District's Occupational Safety and Health division disclosed that it had not inspected the chlorine operations at Blue Plains since 1996 and that in its last inspection, it found a series of safety problems.
"What changes need to be made there so any future weaknesses do not just get reported and ignored?" Williams's press secretary, Peggy Armstrong, said yesterday. "Of course that is not acceptable for the mayor."
Libby Lawson, a spokeswoman for the Water and Sewer Authority, said that as of yesterday evening, she had not yet seen LaPorte's report, so she could not comment on it.
"We will have to wait and see exactly what his report says," she said.