By STEVEN NALLEY
Southwire engineers have determined an alarm system failure and the release of process water from several machines at once caused an overflow of less than 50 gallons Jan. 18 at the company’s Starkville plant.
Officials say the company has found no evidence the process water, used to cool the metal wires the company produces, has entered the city’s water supply. Dan Bickford, Starkville plant manager, said the issue was discovered about three hours after it started by a few employees who noticed process water rising up from a manhole near a ditch. Employees then stopped the flow of water quickly, he said, with the water inches from reaching the ditch.
“It didn’t leave the property,” Bickford said. “It spread out on the concrete. We got it and we reported the flow of water very quickly to be proactive with the state. We’ve made some operational changes to the process system to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Joel Dicks, Southwire corporate environmental engineer, said the plant’s water system includes a basin kept below capacity to handle surges like the one on Jan. 18, a piping network which carries the water to machines for cooling wires and a cooling tower. He said part of the problem was an unusually large amount of process water released into the system at once.
“Coincidentally, there was a release of water from (several) machines in the plant at once, which seldom if ever happens,” Dicks said. “Also, the system has a high (water) level alarm on it, but for whatever reason the float switch stuck to say there was no problem.”
Southwire Communications Director Gary Leftwich said the water is also sent through a state-of-the art treatment facility, so if the water had entered the city’s water supply, the risk would have been minimal.
“It would be safe enough for you to wash your hands in. I’m very picky about what I drink, so I’m not going to go far enough to say you could drink it, but it’s clean enough to wash your hands.”
Despite the low risk and the successful containment of the overflow, Leftwich said Southwire notified local and state agencies about the issue as part of a sustainability plan created five years ago. In those five years, he said, this is the first spill at the Starkville Southwire plant. Southwire has contended with similar spills in Carrollton, Ga., in those five years, he said, but none of them have reached nearby ditches either.
“We try to remain environmentally conscious,” Leftwich said. “We’re committed to transparency in all our issues. We have nothing to hide.”
Southwire also has the capacity to contain spills which enter local water supplies, Leftwich said, and it has tested them by helping other companies. He said Southwire helped one other company when its diesel spilled into a creek in Carrollton.
“We set out booms; we set out everything we could do to capture and contain that water,” Leftwich said. “There would have been an effort had (the Starkville spill) reached a creek or a stream to make sure it was contained immediately, and it would have been monitored to make sure there were no adverse effects or anything harmful in the water.”
Dicks said Southwire has also taken several measures to fortify the system flaws which caused the spill in Starkville. For example, he said, Southwire is taking redundancy measures to ensure that if one of the basin’s alarms fails, an extra alarm will go off.
“There was an elevation difference between the manhole and the concrete basin,” Dicks said. “That has since been corrected. The elevations have been equalized.”
Bickford said Southwire has also adjusted the basin’s operational level to ensure it can handle larger overflows and adjusted its wire processing procedures to prevent too many machines from releasing water at once.