Get Connected
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • Sign In
  • Classifieds
  • Sections
Print

Minimum 'several days' till safe water

Measured chemical levels are declining in water samples, but Kanawha Valley residents are still likely "several days" away from being able to use tap water, government officials said Saturday.

"All the numbers are trending in the right direction," said Lt. Col. Greg Grant, chief of a National Guard civil support team that's running the tests.

About 300,000 residents have been told to use water only for flushing toilets since a Thursday chemical spill contaminated the Elk River and the water supply of eight West Virginia counties, and part of a ninth.

The chemical, "Crude MCHM," is used in coal processing and leaked out of a 35,000-gallon tank owned by Freedom Industries, a chemical distributor based in Charleston and Nitro. A retaining wall surrounding the tank, supposed to serve as a failsafe, was scheduled for $1 million in repairs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that levels of the chemical must be below 1-part-per-million for safe use, but it is not clear how that figure was derived.

Grant said that it initially took them 24 hours to develop a method to analyze the chemical in the water, but they have gotten much more efficient, reducing the time it takes to test one sample from 46 minutes to 18 minutes.

On Saturday afternoon, Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Company, said that they are testing water around the clock to determine the concentration of Crude MCHM but he refused to release the results of those tests.

He said West Virginia American's system, by far the largest water utility in the state, was too big to judge with a limited number of samples.

At a press briefing late Saturday evening, the Tomblin administration reversed course and released water sampling results.

Officials said the most recent tests showed some results that were below the 1-part-per-million level -- 0.75 and 0.62 for example -- but that others had spiked above that amount. One fire hydrant recently tested at 1.39 parts-per-million.

A sheet of test results provided by Tomblin's office showed that eight out of 18 recent test results tested above 1 part per million.

Initial tests, conducted prior to the National Guard's involvement, showed levels as high as 2 to 3 parts per million.

"We're trending in that direction," Grant said. "we initially had some numbers that were 2 to 3 parts per million. Now we're down below one part per million,"

Grant said officials would conduct more than 100 water tests overnight and the same amount throughout the day Sunday.

Dorsey said the cleanup is working.

"The reason the numbers are going down is we believe less of the material is getting into the water," Dorsey said. "We have cut of the source of the leak, the tank. There is still material under the concrete and the soil. We've taken aggressive measures on the shore line below the site."

Public health officials said they need to see 24 straight hours of results below 1 part per million before the water company can begin flushing the system.

"These individual samples are like a puzzle piece and we have a bunch of puzzle pieces but we don't have a picture yet," McIntyre said.

McIntyre said that once water service is returned, the company would offer residential customers a credit for 1,000 gallons of water to allow them to flush contaminated water through their pipes.

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said 73 people had gone to area emergency rooms and five have been admitted to hospitals with chemical-related symptoms.

"I think it's valid that people are beginning to understand that if you have signs and symptoms, we certainly want you to seek medical attention," Bowling said. "But we also want people to understand that, again, if everyone followed the precautions as indicated, ... then we believe there will be less and less people reporting with irritation -- eye irritation, nausea and vomiting."

Mike Dorsey, with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said they now think 7,500 gallons of Crude MCHM leaked into the river.

That's a big increase from previous estimates, which pegged the leak at 2,000 to 5,000 gallons.

Dorsey said the chemical leaked out of a one-inch hole in the 35,000-gallon steel tank.

The chemical has stopped leaking out of the tank itself but could still be in the surrounding soil, Dorsey said.

"You can't see anything coming out anymore, but just given my experience, I would say there's some in the ground," Dorsey said. "I'm guessing there will be some coming out of that bank for some time now...we've cut off the source. There is still material under the concrete and in the soil."

Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, told Dorsey he had recently put $1 million in escrow to fix the block dike that's meant to stop any spills from the tanks, Dorsey said.

"They just hadn't gotten to it yet," Dorsey said.

Dorsey said that the licorice odor associated with the chemical is "apparently not" harmful to breathe. The odor has been prevalent in much of Charleston and is still noticeable near the Elk River.

Dr. Elizabeth Sharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Control Center, said that it's possible water could still smell even when the chemical is below acceptable levels.

"Just because people can smell the product does not mean it's at a dangerous level," Sharman said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin thanked residents for their patience in dealing with the chemical leak. 

"We got through a derecho, Super Storm Sandy and floods together and now we'll get through this," Tomblin said. He went on to call the chemical leak "unacceptable."

Tomblin also indicated that he would pursue legislation attempting to prevent future issues like this.

"There are certain reporting things that companies have to do and we do need to look at it to make sure this type of incident does not happen again," he said.

On Saturday afternoon, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced it was deploying a team to Charleston to investigate the chemical leak at Freedom Industries.

The announcement follows calls by Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for a CSB probe.

"This incident continues to impact the people of West Virginia. Our goal is to find out what happened to allow a leak of such magnitude to occur and to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent a similar incident from occurring," said board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.

The CSB team will be led by supervisory investigator Johnnie Banks and is scheduled to arrive in West Virginia on Monday morning, agency officials said.

The CSB is an independent federal agency with authority to investigate industrial chemical accidents. Agency officials don't write citations or issue fines but come up with recommendations for prevention of future accidents.

Previously, the CSB has issued detailed reports on a propane tank explosion that killed four people at a Little General convenience store in Ghent in January 2007, a blast that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute in August 2008, and a series of January 2010 incidents that killed one worker at the DuPont Co. plant in Belle.

The board has yet to release a report on a December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland.

"I'm pleased the Chemical Safety Board responded so quickly to my request for a formal investigation into the Freedom Industries chemical spill," Rockefeller said Saturday in a statement.

Dorsey, with the DEP, said the chemical is partially soluble. Because the chemical will be diluted, it should not cause problems for communities downstream, Dorsey said. Emergency officials here have been in contact with the Ohio River Sanitation Commission as a precaution, he said.

"I don't see how it could possibly be an issue for anyone downstream," Dorsey said.

Officials said that they are continuing to bring in clean water for affected residents.

Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, said the state has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has brought in 1.4 million liters of water to date.

He was expecting FEMA to supply an additional 1.6 million liters over the course of the weekend.

Water distribution centers have been set up across the area.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvagazette.com or 304-348-1702.


Print

User Comments