CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to test a sample of homes for the toxic chemical Crude MCHM is a start, but the investigation needs to be carefully planned so it will answer important questions about long-term impacts of the Elk River leak, according to independent experts who are already studying the region's water crisis.
"Science needs to drive the train," said Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer who received an emergency National Science Foundation grant to support his work.
Whelton and a team of researchers drove to Charleston after the Jan. 9 leak and did some sampling of home tap water and helped some residents flush their plumbing systems.
Since then, Whelton has offered to assist the state in a broader examination of the issue but has not yet been brought in by Tomblin or other state and federal officials.
Whelton cautioned, though, that the state can't do the work in secret and must educate the public about how the study would work, why it's being done that way, and what sorts of helpful information the effort will provide.
"You've got to sell it to the public, whatever is done," Whelton said. "If officials just do it on their own, and don't engage the public, the value of the information obtained might not have buy-in from the public."
Tomblin's office offered no new information Thursday on their progress in developing the testing plan, except to say that the state was considering bringing in outside experts to assist.
On Wednesday, after first brushing off the idea during a high-profile news conference, the governor later directed his spill-response team to come up with a plan for testing the water in a representative sample of the 100,000 homes and businesses impacted by the leak.
State and federal officials have said residents can resume using water from West Virginia American Water's regional system, citing test results showing levels of Crude MCHM were below a controversial 1 part-per-million "screening level" set by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
But government officials have done no testing inside people's homes, and tests at local schools have been only of chemical levels in the water -- not of levels in the air, despite complaints about inhalation impacts and a lack of data on the inhalation toxicity of the material.
At the same time, questions continue about the extent of water system testing that will continue to be done over the long-term by either the state of West Virginia American Water.
During his Wednesday news conference, Tomblin said, "I have asked West Virginia American Water to continue testing throughout its distribution system.
"This additional testing and the conclusions will continue to be posted online," the governor said. "We recognize that transparency promotes confidence."
Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard said his teams would discontinue their testing of water from hydrants around the distribution system once the last of 24 water company "zones" shows levels below the state's detection level of 10 parts per billion.
And Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, said once that system-wide "non-detect" is achieved, her company would then announce what testing "if any" of the system beyond its treatment plant would be conducted.
Sen. President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said Thursday the state will have to ensure more testing and different kinds of testing to regain the public's trust.
"We need to know facts," Kessler said. "We need to test the air and the water."
Kessler added that residents need answers about how long their water is going to smell like black-licorice candy.
"I wouldn't want to drink licorice-smelling water forever," Kessler said. "We need to know if this is temporary or permanent."