New Software Helps Track the Path of Toxic Spills

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ecological engineers have developed software that can model the path of a toxic spill in waterways anywhere in the United States. The system can predict if and when a contaminant will reach a drinking water intake, and whether its concentration will be high enough to be a threat. The data base covers more than 300 potential water contaminants, and can be used to alert first responders of potential risks.
If our drinking water supply is contaminated, accidentally or intentionally, a spill response team goes to work, getting the situation under control as quickly as possible. Now new computer software is helping make the response even quicker -- all across the country.

"The first thing we want to do is find out how big of a threat it is," Doug Stolz, of Olympia, Washington's, Hazardous Materials Spill Response Team, tells DBIS. "We want to assess the threat, determine what the material is, and what its characteristics are."

Testing the water helps answer those questions. New software will help even more. Ecological engineer Douglas Ryan helped develop the Incident Command (IC) Water Tool. It shows a contaminant moving through water in real time.

"It puts the information that the incident commanders and the first responders need in their hands quickly enough that they can take action to protect the public at times when time is really critical," Ryan, of the USDA Forest Service, tells DBIS.

The IC Water Tool answers these four questions: Where's the contaminant going? Is there a drinking water intake along the path? If there is, when will the contaminant reach it? And will the contaminant's level be high enough to be a threat to people?

Ryan says, "Right now, that sort of information is scattered in many different places. And to pull it together quickly to be of use to incident commanders takes time and they often don't have that time."

The IC Water Tool can get the information to first responders anywhere in the country making our drinking water safer, quicker. The database covers more than 300 types of potential water contaminants. The software has maps of anywhere a contaminant can enter the water system and each location of where drinking water comes from nationwide. The Department of Defense is distributing the tool.