CHARLESTON, W. Va. - National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are using the skills and training they have for sampling and identifying unknown chemical or biological agents to help West Virginia officials evaluate the quality of water after a chemical spill left more than 300,000 residents without drinking water. Weapons of mass destruction civil support teams from five different states have been working in the Charleston area since Jan. 9, 2014, to assist the West Virginia National Guard's 35th CST with the collection, data entry and transport of water samples for evaluation.
"The impact of the National Guard has been huge," said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water. He said that his company has a lot of capability and technically savvy people, but the Guard has played a key role in helping with a water sampling effort that spans more than 3,000 square miles. "Their support shows us how important the National Guard is to a state and community or even a private enterprise that can't do everything it needs for the people of West Virginia."
West Virginia officials lifted water restrictions that began Jan. 9, but sampling continues to evaluate the water supply. Officials say they will continue testing until the system has been sampled and tested at 1/100 parts per million (10 parts per billion), a level well below the Center for Disease Control recommended threshold for public health and considered to be the level of non-detection.
CSTs from Tennessee, Ohio and Washington, D.C. deployed for duty soon after the initial spill to assist the 35th CST with water sample collection, inputting tracking information and transporting samples to testing labs for evaluation. CSTs from Virginia and Pennsylvania arrived Jan. 18 to continue support after the initial CSTs departed.
"After our initial response, we realized pretty quickly that we were going to need some help," said Lt. Col. Greg Grant, commander of the 35th CST. He said that while the water company was very skilled and experienced in their operations, the demand of collecting more than 1,500 samples over a period of more than 10 days required a huge effort. With the help of the other CSTs, water sampling operations have been running 24 hours a day.
For the sampling operations, National Guard Soldiers and Airmen pair up with employees of West Virginia American Water, travel to a designated survey point, collect a water sample, label it, then return it to a collection point where the key data is captured and then the sample is sent off for evaluation. CST personnel continue to track the samples until the evaluation results are returned from the lab.
"Our baseline survey task is to go to a point, take a sample, bring it back and get it to an analytical lab," said Maj. Casey Cox, commander of the 34th CST. He said the nuts and bolts behind effective sampling is the data and being able to carefully and accurately track the sample results through the entire process.
The coordinated multi-state response has also validated many of the training practices and procedures used by the CSTs. Grant explained that because CSTs are regionally aligned and often train together, there were already established relationships that improved the effectiveness of the initial response. Because CSTs follow standard protocols and procedures, it was easy to integrate new CST members into the operation without compromising mission effectiveness, he said.
According to National Guard Bureau, there are 57 WMD-CSTs located in each state, U.S. territory and Washington D.C. with two each in California, Florida and New York. The teams are on stand-by 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can deploy an advance team within 90 minutes of notification. The main body deploys within three hours.
Grant said that he called the commander of the Tennessee CST at 10:30 a.m. and they were on a plane at 3:30 in the afternoon. "The professionalism and skill sets of the National Guard and CSTs are really remarkable, and we know we can count on each other," he said.
"I am very pleased with how quickly we were able to alert, marshal and deploy safely into West Virginia," Cox said. He added that their experience in West Virginia is allowing them to exercise their sampling skills and will make them more effective. "What we are doing here is allowing us to hone our skills for future missions," Cox said.
A National Guard weapons of mass destruction civil support team is comprised of 22 full-time Army and Air National Guard personnel with the mission to support civil authorities at a domestic chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incident site with identification and assessment of hazards, advice to civil authorities, and facilitating the arrival of follow-on military forces during emergencies and incidents of weapons of mass destruction terrorism. Following Hurricane Katrina, the CST was expanded to include natural and man-made disasters. The unit complements and enhances, but does not duplicate, state CBRNE response capabilities and is divided into six sections: command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, medical/analytical and survey.
More than 500 members of the West Virginia National Guard have been on duty assisting with water testing as well as distribution of bottled water to residents in support of the state's multi-agency response to the situation.