Four days after a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration and West Virginia American Water Company were once again unable to give a firm timeline for when water service would be restored to 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley.
A nine-county area of West Virginia is still under a "state of emergency," with tap water not to be used for anything but flushing toilets and fighting fires, but test results "are trending in the right direction," Tomblin said at a news conference Sunday night.
"I believe that we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel," Tomblin said.
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, said that he no longer believes they are "several days" from starting to lift the "do not use" order, but that the ban would not be lifted Sunday.
The leak affects the water system in parts of nine counties. All schools will be closed on Monday in four of those counties: Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Putnam. Select schools will be closed in Cabell and Clay counties.
State Superintendent Jim Phares said that he would be sending instructions to county superintendents on how to flush their water systems and clean any equipment and appliances that were in contact with contaminated water. He said county personnel would begin that process on Monday.
All government offices and the legislature will be open Monday, Tomblin said.
State officials said that test results are improving, but the water system still needs significant flushing.
Gen. James Hoyer said that National Guard teams directing the sampling of water at the treatment plant met their goal of not seeing any results with chemical concentrations of more than 1 part per million of the leaked chemical, "Crude MCHM," for 24 hours.Laura Jordan, spokeswoman for the water company, said Sunday night that flushing of the utility's distribution system had begun. But, residents still needed to wait until instructed to begin cleaning out their home piping and appliances.
State officials have said that a federal team from the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry came up with the 1-part-per-million figure as a safe level, in the absence of any drinking water standards or health-based standards for the chemical.
But there is little health data available for the material, and government officials have declined to provide much detail about how they calculated the 1-part-per-million number.
When asked for more details on Sunday, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said only that, "We felt very confident in the federal system."
Information about Crude MCHM has been difficult to come by, and Freedom Industries -- the company that was storing the chemical along the banks of the Elk River -- hasn't been helpful in divulging information either.
"I think that perhaps they could have been a bit more forthcoming and offered their assistance on what problems this particular chemical could have caused," Tomblin said.
When asked why officials didn't know such material was stored so close to the region's water intake, Director of Homeland Security Jimmy Gianato said it was a matter of the material being stored there that kept Freedom Industries off their radar. The company filed its "Tier 2" forms with the state and county last February, making them aware of what it stored and how much was kept there.
"The chemical that is involved here is not listed as an extremely hazardous or toxic substance, so it's not subject to a lot of the regulatory requirements that other products are," Gianato said.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn't regularly inspect those tanks, because the facility is used for storage, not processing, according to Secretary Randy Huffman.