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Kanawha distributes final round of water

Lawrence Pierce
Employees with Kanawha County's Emergency Management Services distribute boxes of water to residents on Goshorn Street beside the county courthouse Monday during the county's last water distribution.
Lawrence Pierce A man waits as county emergency management personnel load boxes of water into his car Monday.
Lawrence Pierce Charleston resident Fred Nezhad, who has a family of nine, said he had hoped the state would extend water distribution for a while longer.
Lawrence Pierce Kanawha County emergency management workers distributed boxes of pre-packaged emergency drinking water during the county's final water distribution Monday. Each case contains slightly more than three gallons, and each resident was allowed to take three boxes.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As he waited in line for water, for what might be the last time during this month's water crisis, Charleston resident David Stout said he's still not drinking or cooking with the tap water provided by West Virginia American Water.

"I realize it's a balancing act; I mean, I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old at home, and we're bathing in it, we're washing in it, but we're not cooking with it or drinking it," Stout said Monday on Goshorn Street, at what Kanawha County officials said would be the final distribution of water.

Stout believes state and county officials have done a lot to provide water to residents, but he wishes they were continuing to do so.

"Once our supply is exhausted, I don't know what we'll do. I haven't decided," he said.

Some area residents still don't trust the water after the Jan. 9 chemical spill from Freedom Industries into the Elk River, despite assurances from government agencies and the water company that the amount of the chemical Crude MCHM that remains in the water is safe.

Another Charleston resident, Fred Nezhad, who has a family of nine, was appreciative of the water passed out Monday -- but said he still wasn't comfortable using his tap and wished the state were able to extend water distribution for a while longer.

"This morning we got an emergency number telling us about this," Nezhad said. "We came by to get our three cases, but these are small bottles -- who knows how long they'll last. It would be a good idea to do it a little bit longer, I think."

Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said the county contacted the Governor's Office and was told there would be three trucks available for them Monday, but that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had declared an end to the incident period and would no longer provide water to the state.

"The county's position is that as long as we have water available, we're going to pass it out," said C.W. Sigman, deputy emergency services manager for Kanawha County. "The water we've been passing out for the last few weeks has come from FEMA through the state, and we distribute it to the agencies that want to help distribute it. Luckily, we've had a lot of agencies step up and say, 'send us water. We'll take care of it.'"

Sigman said the state "continued to give us additional water beyond that to ensure we got through all of the zones, and additional water for the schools, so we've exhausted all of the federal supplies that the state has purchased.

"The water from FEMA is not free; that's a misconception. The state has to pay 25 percent of the cost of all of that water. All of the water that we cost-shared with FEMA has been exhausted -- this is the last little bit that was left," Sigman said.

FEMA spokesman Peter Herrick Jr. said his office and the state have not had talks on continuing to supply water for the area, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office has not requested additional water to his knowledge.

Herrick added that he could not speculate on whether FEMA would be able to provide the region with more water if it were requested. "I cannot say how that conversation would go," he said.

State homeland security director Jimmy Gianato was at Goshorn Street on Monday, and confirmed that FEMA had declared the emergency over last week.

According to Gianato, the declaration came to an end several days after the water was declared safe in all of the affected zones, despite contradicting reports on the safety of the agency's 1-part-per-million threshold.

State officials have said they relied on the federal Centers for Disease Control for that limit. The CDC later issued an advisory for pregnant women not to drink the water -- an advisory that still hasn't been lifted -- and CDC officials said last week that they should have been clearer in saying the 1-part-per-million mark was not a "bright line" to mark what is safe and unsafe.

Late Monday afternoon, West Virginia American Water released a statement in which company President Jeff McIntyre said the levels of MCHM were "non-detectable" in about 85 percent of the local service area. In the places where the chemical can still be detected, McIntyre said, levels are "still extremely low and only a fraction of the CDC-established 1 ppm health-protective limit.

"Our team expects that it will take a few more days of persistent flushing and testing before all sample points used throughout the system reflect non-detectable levels," McIntyre said.

The water distribution at Goshorn Street was supposed to begin at noon Monday, but was delayed. Sigman stood on the sidewalk beside the county courthouse and waved cars past. "The truck with the water isn't here yet," he shouted to drivers.

The trucks were delayed for about an hour. Sayre said the delay was the result of lost time in loading and unloading the trucks. Each car that passed through the distribution center was given three cases of boxed water, and a line had formed around the block within 10 minutes of the water's delivery.

Also on Monday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged federal officials to change the state's emergency declaration, which would provide funding for local and state entities that responded to the recent water shortage. It would benefit state and local governments, first responders and nonprofits that offered water and other resources after a Jan. 9 chemical spill tainted the water supply for 300,000 people.

Tomblin wrote to federal disaster officials that it cost state and local responders more than $2 million for their work. The state also is paying 25 percent of already approved federal assistance.

The governor also is requesting low-interest federal loans for businesses that lost money during the water-use ban.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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