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Use of water 'your decision,' Tomblin says

Chip Ellis
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (center), flanked by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (left) and state Senate President Jeff Kessler, said Monday he thinks the choice for residents to start drinking their water again is a personal decision.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Monday told 300,000 state residents that they should make their own decisions about using water from West Virginia American Water's Elk River plant in the wake of this month's leak of the chemical Crude MCHM.

"It's your decision," the governor told reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. "If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water."

Tomblin emphasized that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the water is safe as long as it contains less than 1 part per million of the coal-cleaning chemical, which leaked into the Elk River from the Freedom Industries tank farm 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake.

Outside public health experts, though, have said the lack of much data on the chemical -- not an unusual situation for most chemicals -- makes it hard to be sure the CDC number is adequately protective, especially for young children.

Tomblin said he did not know about a U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Register (ATSDR) recommendation that state officials advise affected residents to flush their home plumbing systems until they no longer smelled the chemical's licorice odor.

When asked why the state rejected the ATSDR's advice, Tomblin said, "I'm not aware that we did. I have not seen that."

The leak from Freedom Industries prompted a do-not-use order that covered 100,000 West Virginia American customers -- roughly 300,000 people -- across a nine-county region starting at about 5 p.m. Jan. 9.

Last week, officials with the water company and the state government gradually cleared all affected areas to resume using their tap water as sampling showed concentrations of Crude MCHM dropping below a 1-part-per-million screening level set by the CDC. The exception was an advisory, issued late Thursday, that pregnant women across the region drink only bottled water until absolutely no Crude MCHM is detected in water supplies.

As the water company's Internet map listed more and more areas moving into the "blue" area that officials said was safe, area residents were told to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for five minutes, and outside faucets for five minutes to flush the chemical from their homes.

But some residents have complained about odors during the flushing, and also that a licorice smell is lingering in their water days after they followed the flushing guidance.

In a prepared statement, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said that a Charleston Gazette story was the first time that West Virginia American had heard about the ATDSR recommendation on flushing times. But she said the recommendation would not have changed the company's advice to customers.

"Simply flushing until no odor is detected is not based upon the CDC's health recommendation and would have been an irresponsible instruction, as this excessive action would have emptied the water system and caused customers to go without water that was already determined to be under the health protective threshold for an indefinite amount of time," Jordan said in an email message.

The most recent water sampling data made available by state officials included samples taken through 6 p.m. on Jan. 18, and showed an increasing number of locations where none of the chemical could be detected.

State officials have provided few details of their testing procedure, including whether they are checking only for Crude MCHM or also for any of that material's ingredients.

On Sunday, the Tomblin administration issued a statement that said the state's testing could detect to concentrations as small as 10 parts per billion. On Monday, officials from the Louisville Water Co. said that they were able to detect lower concentrations, as low as about 1 part per billion.

Asked why West Virginia was not using a method that would detect as low as the Louisville sampling, Tomblin again emphasized the CDC's guidance that anything below 1 part per million was safe for everyone except pregnant women. The state has issued an advisory warning pregnant women to drink only bottled water for now.

The governor said, "I'm not a scientist," adding that whether the detection limit is 10 parts per billion or 1 part per billion, the concentration involved "is still minuscule."

Tomblin answered questions from a small group of reporters following a news conference, held before a larger group including legislators and lobbyists, to announce his administration's plan for a new regulatory program for above-ground storage tanks.

Tomblin said his administration would be looking at all possible responses, including possibly revisiting a U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendation, made twice following fatal chemical plant accidents in the Kanawha Valley, and create a new chemical accident prevention program.

"We're going to look at all of this," the governor said. "It's a very complex issue. I'm not a scientist. I have to follow the best information.

"All of this stuff is coming out," Tomblin said. "Right now there are recommendations from a lot of people."

Over the weekend, the Tomblin administration also tried to downplay the illnesses reported by residents who have sought medical attention, blaming the flu or anxiety over the water crisis.

Laura Vandenberg, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said that there is little data to support the administration's comments.

"I also believe several statements are confusing the concept that just because there are no known dangers doesn't mean that something is safe," Vandenberg said.

"This is frustrating," she said. "I know that public health officials are trying to keep people from panicking, and I also know that people will start to notice small rashes or sore throats and automatically assume it is related to the spill.

"But answers to questions like, 'Are there known risks associated with this chemical mixing with household cleaners?' can be answered with a 'no' only because there are no known risks -- because this is completely unstudied," Vandenberg said.

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


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