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Water company: No plans to move intake upstream

Rachel Molenda
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre showed reporters Monday he was more than willing to drink tap water at the company's headquarters. Noting it didn't have a smell, McIntyre said he would drink it even if it did.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia American Water has no plans to move its intake in the Elk River farther upstream, beyond the Freedom Industries plant that leaked a toxic chemical into the river earlier this month, the company's president told reporters Monday.

Jeff McIntyre said the company is "singularly focused" on getting customers the quality of water they had before the chemical leak that left 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley without potable water for days.

"Our plans right now are to continue to go through the system, to get all samples that we take below [detectable levels], which gives us confidence it's been moved out of the system," McIntyre said. "We'll have to look at all things around this event at a later date, but no, we have no plans at this time" to move the intake.

The water company has consulted attorneys, but it isn't clear whether it will take legal action against Freedom Industries.

"We have to look at our options," McIntyre said. "I'm going to take whatever actions I need to take as the president of West Virginia American Water to protect our customers."

Some people have been reluctant to drink the water even after the company said it's safe, due in part to the chemical's lingering odor. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, in an email to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, recommended that customers flush their water pipes until they could no longer smell licorice, the scent associated with the chemical.

The ATSDR issued that advice Jan. 10, one day after the coal-processing chemical Crude MCHM was released into the Elk River. McIntyre said Monday he knew of no such advisory until reading about it in the Gazette on Monday.

He called that recommendation "inappropriate" and maintained that the scent is "an aesthetic issue," because the odor continues to occur despite chemical levels testing below 1 part per million, the level that state and water company officials have been relying on before they declare the water safe.

Suggesting people flush their pipes until the scent dissipates could deplete the company's water supply, McIntyre said.

West Virginia American Water has been working with several agencies to determine the safety of consuming its water, as well as methods to remove the tainted water from its system.

The methodology behind some of these recommendations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 1-part-per-million safety threshold, has not been clear. Some recommendations were delayed.

Well within the third day of customer flushing, the CDC issued a letter to the DHHR advising pregnant women to refrain from drinking water until Crude MCHM was not detectable at any level.

McIntyre said he hasn't questioned the CDC.

"I wish it had been done before we started [flushing] rather than when we were halfway through," McIntyre said of the advisory. "But we deal with the realities of the guidance as we get it."

McIntyre acknowledged customers' distrust of the company while taking a sip of water poured from one of three full pitchers inside West Virginia American Water's conference room.

"Trust is one of those things," McIntyre said. "I understand. ... Trust is something we'll build back up over time."

McIntyre said he and his wife have been drinking the water, as well as using it for cooking and cleaning, since the water ban was lifted.

Responding to the skepticism of reporters that the water in those pitchers might be bottled, McIntyre filled a glass from the tap and drank it. It didn't smell, McIntyre said.

"I wish it did," he said. "I'd drink it anyway."

The company has not been testing customer taps for traces of the chemical, which leaked into the river nearly two weeks ago. There are no plans to provide such a service to its customers, McIntyre said.

"Our responsibility is to make sure the system is safe," McIntyre said. "There's work that people need to do for themselves. We can't do everything for everybody."

While Freedom Industries -- the company housing Crude MCHM -- is located just upstream from the water company's intake, West Virginia American Water had no mechanisms for detecting the chemical nor for treating it in water.

McIntyre said he believed the water company made attempts before the leak to contact Freedom Industries about what was stored at the site but received no answers.

It's uncertain whether West Virginia American Water customers will see a rate increase as a result of the chemical leak. McIntyre said the water company couldn't seek another rate increase from the state's Public Service Commission until 2015.

"I can't say what the impact will be, because I'm sure there will be lawsuits, there will be insurance claims and a host of other things," McIntyre said. "The reality is that our only revenue source is our customers."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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