CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Researchers from three universities have received emergency funding for studies of the long-term impacts of the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical leak, including an examination of whether the "flushing" advised by state officials and the water company adequately cleared toxic chemicals from home plumbing systems.
National Science Foundation officials said Thursday they had approved Rapid Response Research grants to allow experts from the University of South Alabama, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech to more closely examine the impacts of the chemical Crude MCHM.
The grant announcements come as West Virginia's government continued to insist that the water is safe, and harshly criticized at least one local scientist who has raised questions about the way the crisis is being handled.
In announcing the organization's $150,000 in grants, a NSF official called the Freedom Industries' leak "one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century."
"The main challenge for authorities managing the spill has been how little researchers know about the chemical and how it interacts with other substances," said William Cooper, director of the NSF's Chemicals, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems division.
The NSF grants will go to:
• Andrew Whelton of the University of South Alabama, who will examine the chemical's absorption into and removal from plastic drinking-water pipes, focusing mainly on houses.
• Jennifer Weidhaas of WVU, who will assess the extent and contamination in drinking water, the treatment plant and areas near the Elk River.
• Andrea Dietrich of Virginia Tech, who will study the physical and chemical behavior of MCHM itself in the environment, to gather data necessary to model the environmental fate of the chemical.
Together, the NSF said, the three studies present a systems approach that will provide a better understanding of the fate of MCHM in water systems.
"One of the concerns in this spill is authorities have little to no information about exactly what this chemical does to drinking-water plumbing systems," Whelton said. "Chemicals tend to absorb more into plastic pipes than metal pipes. Plastic pipes can act like a sponge, sucking up chemicals."
After the leak was discovered, Whelton drove to West Virginia from Alabama with a team of researchers that's been taking water samples from homes and assisted residents with what they say is a safer and more effective method of "flushing" the leak's chemicals from plumbing systems.
Starting Jan. 13, water company officials and the state government began a weeklong process of lifting broad "do not use" orders for sections of the nine-county area impacted by the MCHM leak. After the order was lifted, residents were advised to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for 5 minutes, and their outside faucets for 5 minutes, to flush the chemical from their homes.
However, since then, residents have continued to complain that the black-licorice smell of the chemical is lingering, especially in their hot water.
State officials, in announcing their guidance for flushing, rejected an earlier recommendation from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that residents be advised to flush their plumbing systems until the chemical odor is gone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had said in internal documents that flushing the chemicals out of the system "may require a fairly prolonged time to complete," perhaps two to three weeks.