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Chemical from leak detected in area schools

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Detectable amounts of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM from the leak into the Elk River and the West Virginia American Water pipelines earlier this month have been found in three Kanawha County schools, as well as one each in Lincoln and Putnam counties.

George Washington High School, John Adams Middle School and Andrews Heights Elementary School's water systems will be flushed again this weekend, according to Kanawha County Schools officials. Detectable levels of the chemical also were found in Buffalo High School and Lincoln County High School.

The detected levels are all well below the 1-part-per-million level of MCHM the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is safe for everyone but pregnant women, but above the state's "non-detect" level of 10 parts per billion. One part per million equals 1,000 parts per billion.

Schools in Kanawha County are still supplying students with bottled water and are using bottled water in all food preparation. Water fountains are covered with bags and there is hand sanitizer in all the bathrooms.

The West Virginia National Guard conducted water tests this week at all 69 schools in Kanawha County, as well as affected schools in Putnam, Boone, Lincoln, Cabell and Clay counties. All the tests were conducted between Tuesday and Friday.

George Washington tested at 10 parts per billion, John Adams at 12 parts per billion, Andrews Heights at 19 parts per billion, Buffalo High at 52 parts per billion and Lincoln High at 24 parts per billion, according to results provided by the state.

As of 6 p.m. Friday, no result was given for 13 of the 107 schools listed. The rest of the schools showed a "non-detect" level below 10 parts per billion.

Test results were provided from only one lab for each sample. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration has been giving results from two labs for most of the tests it has made public.

The test results were posted on the state Division of Homeland Security's website Friday afternoon, after Kanawha County Schools officials told news outlets they had detected elevated levels.

Asked if he expected schools to be open Monday, Kanawha Superintendent Ron Duerring said, "There's no reason why we couldn't.  . . . We have to go through the [water-pipe flushing] protocols again and the Kanawha County health department will come and check us out again."

George Aulenbacher, principal at George Washington High, said he "was just told that it was a higher level and that they're just going to reflush and retest.

"We're going to keep [using bottled water] until we get the all-clear from the Central Office," he said, "but I don't see that being any time in the near future."

GW and John Adams are in the South Hills area of Charleston; Andrews Heights is in the Tornado area.

Putnam Schools Superintendent Chuck Hatfield said extracurricular activities at Buffalo High will be canceled this weekend. He said the school's pipes will be flushed -- for the third time -- this weekend.

Steve Priestley, president of the Lincoln County school board, said water lines at Lincoln County High will be flushed again over the weekend, and then retested. He said school officials also conducted independent tests and those results are expected back next week.

"We're not going to use the water until we know it's absolutely safe," Priestley said.

After the leak, West Virginia American and Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials said school taps were not being tested for MCHM but were being flushed and cleaned of possible contaminated water. However, that changed earlier this week. According to a news release from Kanawha County Schools, testing was done in schools and hospitals "to give an additional level of assurance."

Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Tomblin had directed the National Guard to conduct the tests to "confirm the water meets this more rigorous standard to provide an additional level of assurance.

"It was in an attempt to bring even further assurances to the public and to parents and to educators," Cordeiro said.

The schools news release also stressed that the testing was done as a precaution.

"Kanawha County Schools followed the proper protocol and guidelines for flushing each individual school to achieve the CDC-recommended level of 1 part per million," the release stated. "This additional testing and work is to ensure a level 100 times below the CDC-recommended level and a level [the] CDC has deemed safe for all populations."

Staff writers Lydia Nuzum and Rusty Marks contributed to this report.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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