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General says National Guard teams essential to water response

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With temperatures wavering between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit, Wednesday wasn't a day most people would want to be opening water hydrants to take water samples.

"It's not so bad," said 1st Sgt. Brodie Kirkland, a member of the 34th Civil Support Team of the Virginia National Guard. "The good thing is you can get back in the car and get warm."

On Wednesday, Kirkland was one of 38 Civil Support Team members from the Virginia and West Virginia National Guard who were taking water samples to test for contaminants in water supplied by West Virginia American Water. National Guard support teams have been at the forefront of organizing, sampling and testing water since Freedom Industries leaked MCHM and PPH into the Elk River Jan. 9.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, state adjutant general, said civil support teams from West Virginia and neighboring states were called in to help organize and carry out a massive water testing campaign as soon as it became known the chemical leak had contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties.

"I think it was absolutely vital," Hoyer said. "The state just didn't have the capacity to test and sample at these volumes."

Originally set up in the 1990s, National Guard civil support teams were trained to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorist attacks. After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001, the role of the teams was expanded to include weapons of mass destruction.

When two pressure cooker bombs went off at the Boston Marathon in April, National Guard civil support teams were there. Hoyer said team members' training in detecting and dealing with chemical weapons incidents also makes them ideal in helping with natural disasters and chemical spills.

"We assisted with the Katrina response," Hoyer said. "During Katrina, you had so much storm surge that it was throwing tanks of diesel fuel into the water supply."

Hoyer said the civil support team's tactics for dealing with the Freedom Industries spill are not unlike what they would do for a chemical weapons attack. "You'd have a very similar approach," he said.

Lt. Col. Greg Grant, commander of the West Virginia National Guard's 35th Civil Support Team, said the original 10 civil support teams set up in the 1990s have expanded to 57 units in every state and U.S. territory. West Virginia's team includes 22 fulltime members, some of whom have backgrounds in science and chemistry.

At the peak of the water emergency, Grant said a total of four support teams were in West Virginia, taking and logging water samples, transporting the samples to several labs set up to evaluate the water and keeping track of the results. As testing has slowed, the number of teams taking samples has been scaled back to two.

Grant said more than 1,500 water samples have been taken.

State and federal officials set a threshold of one part per million of MCHM before residents were told they could use their water. Hoyer said that's the equivalent of an ounce of liquid in a 7,500-gallon tanker truck. The labs set up to test the local water supply can detect the chemical down to 10 parts per billion, or about six drops in the same truck.

So far, civil support teams from Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have been called in to assist with testing.

Kirkland said his Virginia unit was told on Jan. 15 they'd be coming to West Virginia. "On the 16th, we were on the road driving up here," he said.

Kirkland, who has been a member of a civil support team since 2001, said the units are capable of doing their own testing, but labs in West Virginia had already been set up to test the water. He said the quick response of the units is invaluable during a chemical or other crisis.

"The great thing about the National Guard is you can deploy a lot faster than the federal government, because you're under control of the individual governors," he said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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