An Avoidable Accident at a Water Treatment Plant

Accidental Keystroke Leads to Water Crisis

“To err is human.” A true statement that is often followed by a domino effect of major consequences. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) in Chapel Hill, NC recently experienced first-hand how a slight mistake can lead to a “worst-case scenario”. The municipal water treatment plant was affected, as well as 80,000 residents in North Carolina’s Orange County area.

A recent article detailed how a distracted water treatment plant operator unintentionally hit a button. This signaled a fluoride feed pump to increase the levels of fluoride in the water. What is normally an 8-12% operating speed for the pump was increased to 80% for approximately three hours.

Authorities discovered that the plant operator noticed disparate fluoride levels at one point and went to review the data to make adjustments. That operator then became distracted and forgot to check the issue, then making a computer keystroke that unintentionally triggered the inciting event.

The Consequences of Out-of-Date Methods 

While OWASA officials established “that no water with increased fluoride levels made it into the drinking water for OWASA customers,” this breach did trigger an emergency water interconnect from the city of Durham. The following day, a water main funneling the water from Durham had a break. This forced a Do Not Drink/Do Not Use order for southern Orange County residents and businesses for more than 24 hours.

The Health Department responded by closing all hotels and restaurants served by OWASA. They even postponed and relocated the UNC men’s basketball game against Notre Dame. In all, nearly 80,000 people were affected by this accidental error that quickly ballooned.

Could This Error Have Been Avoided?

Once each of the subsequent issues was managed and under control, investigators began their search for the how to best prevent a problem like this from happening in the future.

The water main break was the result of outdated and old infrastructure. Simply put, the water treatment plant was not up to standards for the increased water supply. Additionally, water levels were checked manually. This is no longer necessary. Modern technology, such as Cloud-Based SCADA Monitoring Systems, is widely available. SCADA provides real-time, accurate readings of water levels and other relevant data. The last issue investigators uncovered was that training procedures for employees were not as compliant or practical as necessary.

All of this added up to a huge accidental error. Fortunately, the consequences were kept to a minimum. But the whole situation could have been easily avoidable with updated technology and practices.

Web & Cloud-Based SCADA Systems

The most important takeaway from this event is the need for better monitoring and alert systems. Water treatment is vital to public safety. Effectively monitoring these practices allows for accurate data collection, as well as a safety net for when a disruption occurs to regulated output.

If OWASA had updated their equipment and made use of a cloud-based SCADA monitoring system, the appropriate operators and departments would have been notified. The SCADA system would have alerted decision makers about the high fluoride levels in the water, allowing them to review real-time data about the situation. Additionally, it would have alerted operators that the emergency water main specs were out-of-date and too short for interconnecting Durham’s water.

A cloud-based SCADA system does not rely on the physical presence (or aptitude) of operators. Instead, it records and transmits data in real-time, making it accessible to the proper departments from anywhere that has an Internet connection.

Accidents happen. But learning from mistakes and taking steps to eliminate repeated problems is the best outcome for scenarios primed to have a domino effect. Humans make errors, but humans can also learn from their mistakes.

How SCADA Systems Help Water Treatment and Wastewater Plants

The beauty of modern plumbing is that when we turn on our faucet, we can reasonably expect clean water to come pouring out. There are few places left in the country that are untouched by the advancements and regulations of public water. So when The Washington Post published an article in 2016 about researchers finding unsafe levels of industrial chemicals in the drinking water of 6 million Americans, waste water treatment plants and water management services took notice.

The report cited in the Post article found that “194 of 4,864 water supplies across nearly three dozen states had detectable levels of the chemicals.” Of those water supplies, 66 services had at least one sample that exceeded the EPA’s recommended safety limit for two types of chemicals. That ratio might not seem like a high number, but 66 water services affect six million Americans, so it’s clearly not a small issue.

Water treatment plants and water usage facilities can do their part by making sure their monitoring equipment is up-to-date and as accurate as possible. While SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems are more commonplace in modern operations, an updated version exists and is proving to a more reliable and better solution: a cloud-based SCADA system.

A cloud-based SCADA system allows water management plants to not only monitor levels of specific chemicals and toxins, but to have precise records accessible from anywhere. No longer are digital read-outs only available at a fixed point on the SCADA unit. Instead, any manager or operator who needs data can access it from their own satellite- or WIFI-enabled device.

In the contaminated water study, the EPA sought to mitigate the ramifications until stricter guidelines could be drawn up. When it comes to healthy drinking water, Americans don’t want to waste time in the bureaucratic process of defining regulations.

Unfortunately, Congress mandates that before the EPA imposes new limitations on the nation’s water utilities, it has to prove that there is a meaningful opportunity to improve public health. It is a long, arduous process that takes years; officials have not successfully regulated any new contaminant in two decades because the process is complicated and contentious.

Another benefit of a cloud-based SCADA system is that data collected in real-time from the contaminated areas can be studied, compared, and shared with researchers in a faster, more efficient, digital manner. By comparing the data points, researchers can have the most accurate knowledge from which to draw, and that hopefully can lead to quicker results and faster action.
Because of our industrial advancements, the environment is changing faster than we can understand. However, because of our technological advancements, we can use the digital tools available, like a cloud-based SCADA solution, to monitor, record, and support research for improvements.