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Hearing provides few answers on water safety

Kenny Kemp
Witnesses at Monday's congressional field hearing included (left to right) U.S. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, DEP's Mike Dorsey, state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato, public health officer Letitia Tierney, Cabell County emergency services director Gordon Merry, Kanawha County emergency services director Dale Petry, and West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.
Kenny Kemp Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, Rep. Nick Rahall and Sen. Joe Manchin (left to right) listen to testimony during Monday's House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure field hearing in Charleston.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the lengthy prepared statements were over, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., opened the question-and-answer session with a predictable query: Is the drinking water supply that serves 300,000 West Virginians safe?

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, dodged. Water companies do not set safety standards, McIntyre said. They just follow them, and West Virginia American is "in compliance with all the standards."

Asked the same question, Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, weaved.

"That's in a way a difficult thing to say, because everybody has a different definition of safe," Tierney said. "As I've used the example before, some people think it's safe to jump off the bridge on Bridge Day. I don't think that's safe. So everybody has a different definition."

The lack of a clear answer left Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., exasperated during a congressional field hearing on the Freedom Industries spill.

"Nobody is going to say it's safe," Manchin said later in the Monday morning hearing. "That's what I'm hearing."

Officials may have tried hard Monday to avoid declaring the water supply "safe," but they effectively did so weeks ago, when they lifted the "do not use" order issued following the Jan. 9 spill of the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River.

Despite more than two hours of testimony, there was little discussion of the available information -- or the unknowns -- that, if focused on publicly, might help residents understand why no one can really answer for certain the question Capito said everyone is asking.

There was little testimony about the huge lack of data about Crude MCHM, or about thousands of other chemicals. There were few, if any, questions about the formula federal public health officials used to come up with an emergency "screening level" of 1 part per million the state used to clear the regional water system for public use.

Only U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso seemed to really want to try to wade into those issues.

"It would be hard to say if it's safe," Moure-Eraso said. "In order to give a scientific answer, you have to have scientific information."

The strongest statement of the day, though, came from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who did not attend the hearing, but issued a statement saying the spill shows the state's political thinking on environmental and public health issues has been all wrong for far too long.

"It is short-sighted to think that last month's spill is an isolated incident," Rockefeller said. "And it is short-sighted to think that proper regulations would in any way stifle business -- the contrary is true.

"It is time to acknowledge that industry is not looking out for you," Rockefeller said. "Too many in industry are driven solely by maximized profits, and this cynical strategy has caused tremendous harm to West Virginians' well-being and has shaken their sense of our state's future."

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure field hearing, held at the Kanawha County Courthouse, was the second congressional hearing to focus on the spill.

Witnesses provided little new information, and delivered opening statements that seemed to focus on how closely various agencies worked together, and how dedicated they all are to keeping residents safe.

Tierney, for example, emphasized again, "Proudly, I was born and raised in West Virginia ... I am honored to be here today to represent the hard-working men and women from across the Bureau for Public Health who work daily on behalf of all West Virginians -- from the healthiest to the most vulnerable in our population."

Jimmy Gianato, director of the state Division of Homeland Security, told lawmakers, "I also feel it is important to recognize the governor and his staff who worked so diligently to support the agencies and the citizens of West Virginia."

The witness list, though, included no average West Virginians -- no business owners or schoolteachers or working mothers -- who might have told lawmakers personal stories about the spill's impacts. Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., did allow public comments at the end of the hearing, but limited those to seven individuals who were given two minutes each.

Witnesses and lawmakers discussed various options for legislation that might help to avoid a repeat of the spill and the water crisis that followed. Barely mentioned was the fact that numerous agencies knew Freedom was storing large quantities of chemicals 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake, but did nothing to try to prevent or plan for such a spill.

For example, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., asked the CSB's Moure-Eraso to explain the board's recommendation for a new chemical accident prevention program.

"The CSB's previous recommendations aimed at empowering a government agency to determine just what posed a high hazard," Moure-Eraso said. "Perhaps qualified inspectors would have considered aging chemical storage tanks, located just upstream from a public drinking water treatment plant to be potentially 'highly hazardous' and worthy of a closer look."

But Rahall didn't follow up to ask Tierney why state officials didn't implement the board's recommendation when it was made more than three years ago.

The hearing did bring new emphasis to some parts of the timeline of the spill and its aftermath.

For example, Mike Dorsey, director of homeland security and emergency response for the state Department of Environmental Protection, described some of what he saw when he arrived at the tank farm just after noon Jan. 9.

"At this time, it was apparent that MCHM, and as we later learned, propylene glycol phenyl ether, or PPH, was leaking through a retaining wall that was part of the facility's secondary containment," Dorsey told lawmakers. "The drain pipe was leaking through a rusted bottom into an erosion ditch about 5 to 10 feet below the containment wall, and the material that was exiting through the wall was draining directly into a rubble-filled swale that is located where an old fire suppression intake had been located."

Dorsey added, "While it was impossible to identify sources where the material was entering the river, it was clear that the above-mentioned sources were the primary routes of entry into the river for the MCHM."

And Dorsey, a longtime DEP official, did offer one clear example of a lesson he's learned from the incident. Emergency response officials began the incident almost assuming Crude MCHM wasn't too dangerous, because it wasn't listed as "hazardous" under several federal programs.

"The fallacy of that type of assumption is clear now," Dorsey said.

Another witness, Gordon Merry, director of Cabell County's Office of Emergency Services, described his agency's frustration with being unable to get a phone call returned by West Virginia American Water.

"I never did get through," Merry said. "I never got an answer to my messages."

Dale Petry, director of emergency services for Kanawha County, described for lawmakers how Dennis Ferrell of Freedom Industries assured first responders that "not much" of the chemical had spilled into the river.

Several hours later, it became clear the incident was more serious, when Anita Ray of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department told Petry's office they were receiving calls about a licorice-type taste and smell in the area's drinking water.

McIntyre, the water company president, explained in more detail than before that prior to the spill, extreme cold followed by warming weather had led to line breaks and customers running their taps to prevent pipes from freezing.

"System storage was low and losing water even though the treatment plant was running at full capacity," McIntyre said. "Our best judgment, based on these circumstances was that shutting down the plant would quickly result in the loss of the entire distribution system, meaning no water would have been available for any purposes."

Safely restarting the plant could have taken a month, McIntrye said.

Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Joe Manchin criticized Tierney for her Bridge Day analogy.

"I've been to Bridge Day many times," Manchin said. "I did not think it was safe. You understand they all signed a waiver. They signed a waiver of the danger to hold nobody responsible. We shouldn't have to sign a waiver to drink our water."

Tierney responded, "I agree. I just, as a doctor, I cannot countenance jumping off a bridge."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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