A voluntary program that has watched for chemical pollution in the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to Plaquemines Parish since 1986 is getting a technology boost, thanks to money from a settlement last year between ExxonMobil and the state.
In 2014, a $2.3 million settlement between the company and the state Department of Environmental Quality included $1 million for beneficial environmental projects. Included in that was $250,000 for the Early Warning Organic Compound Detection System — known as EWOCDS.
“This is a big opportunity to use the (beneficial environmental projects) to re-establish the stations and get them upgraded,” said Tom Killeen, administrator with DEQ’s office of environmental compliance.
The program is not mandated by law, but is the result of agreements with some industrial facilities and drinking water suppliers. The agreement allows water monitoring at the facilities, and two samples are taken each day. These samples are analyzed to look for unsafe levels of pollution, Killeen said.
Killeen said the hope is that as the program updates, more companies will participate.
“It’s a big, long river. We could use three or four more facilities to do this,” he said.
The system looks for volatile organic chemicals, which are a group of chemicals that are toxic or can cause cancer if the levels are high for an extended period of time in drinking water.
Such chemicals are found in crude oil, gasoline, benzene and much more. All would be potentially hazardous if not detected before entering into a drinking water system downstream from Baton Rouge.
If these general tests get a “hit,” a duplicate water sample is tested to determine what chemicals are present.
Killeen said it wasn’t uncommon in the 1980s to find plumes of pollution in the river. However, the monitoring system hasn’t found a chemical “hit” above drinking water standards for at least five years.
The $250,000 from the settlement is allowing DEQ to replace all computers at the seven monitoring sites, install new software and upgrade the way data is stored and handled, he said.
“With this infusion of money, we want to make sure everything is going to be done in a more consistent, systemwide way,” Killeen said.
To help with that, the Louisiana Chemical Association made funds available for DEQ to hire a consultant who is developing a standard operating procedure for all the monitoring stations.
Henry Graham, vice president of environmental affairs with LCA, said the association has talked with DEQ about improving the program for years. With retirements at DEQ and state budget cuts, the push for standardized operating procedures never got results.
LCA’s board voted to approve up to $17,000 for the project as a continuation of the work they did decades ago in getting the program started, Graham said.
“It’s an important thing. It’s needed,” he said.
Part of the improved program will include posting water testing summary information on the website to increase public awareness.
There hasn’t been a budget for the program and the work has fallen to one staffer who spends part of his time overseeing the monitoring system and another worker to back him up if needed. The program has spent relatively little money in the past two years — $9,600 in the 2013-2014 fiscal year and $12,633 in the 2014-2015 fiscal year for equipment and maintenance of the testing equipment.
“We’ve used agency money and staff to make sure the system stayed up and running,” Killeen said.
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