CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Government investigators are still trying to determine exactly how much of a toxic chemical that spilled at the Freedom Industries tank farm along the Elk River soaked into the ground and could later leach into the river, a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said Wednesday evening.
"An investigation is going on to figure out where there might be any materials in the ground and, so far, that investigation is still going on," EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin told the Charleston on Wednesday.
Asked if that meant officials simply don't know how much of the "Crude MCHM" is still in the soil and could reach the river without proper containment and cleanup measures, Garvin said, "I think that's probably . . . we're still investigating to ensure we have a complete answer to that."
Garvin praised West Virginia officials and other federal agencies for what he said was a "swift" response to the spill.
"Clearly, if you've got a drinking water system that serves up to 300,000 people that is compromised, it's a fairly serious incident," he said. "That's why we got engaged as quickly as we could."
Initially, Garvin said he thought officials had a "pretty good handle" on what he called "source control." Asked if that meant investigators knew how much material had leaked and had been able to ensure that no more of it would ever reach the Elk River or the West Virginia American Water intake 1.5 miles downstream, Garvin offered a more complicated answer.
"There's a lot of activity on the ground, with creating trenches," he said. "There's also boring going on and other things going on to get a handle on answering the question that you have raised, to see how much we can tell that might be in the ground that has the potential of leaching out into the water body."
Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said later that he agreed with Garvin.
"We don't know exactly. Maybe it's not clear is the right word," Huffman said. "The response to that is continued remediation efforts, which we're going to ensure continues to take place."
Huffman added, "I can say for certainty that the state of West Virginia is not going to abandon that site or abandon the remediation efforts until there is 100-percent certainty that the risk of this stuff getting back in the water has been eliminated -- not just minimized.
"I know what my boss is going to say about that, and I think I can make that statement," said Huffman, who is a gubernatorial appointee. "We just can't have that possibility existing."
Asked how long that kind of a cleanup would take, Huffman said, "That's likely the multimillion-dollar question, I think."
Huffman also said Wednesday that a trench dug on the site to try to block water runoff from the operation had been filling with water, which officials believe might have been coming from a water line leak along Barlow Drive. West Virginia American Water replaced a line Wednesday to fix that problem, Huffman said.
Garvin's remarks Wednesday evening were the EPA's first significant public comments about the spill a week ago that fouled drinking water supplies for 300,000 people across a nine-county region around Charleston.
Over the past four years, the EPA has become an almost-constant punching bag for West Virginia's coal industry and the politicians who support it. Mining officials and elected leaders repeatedly denounce what they call a "war on coal," and blast EPA regulatory and enforcement efforts as "federal overreach."