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Tomblin to appeal FEMA decision on water crisis help

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two days after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's request for further financial assistance for West Virginia's ongoing water crisis, a shipment of bottled water sent by FEMA was removed from three Kanawha County schools because of odor and taste problems.

The bottled water was described as "musty," with a "strong odor" and "a problem with the taste," according to a news release from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and Kanawha County Schools. The water issues were related to storage, not the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, which tainted the region's drinking water.

FEMA has been providing bottled water and other assistance since soon after the Elk River chemical leak was detected on Jan. 9, contaminating the drinking water of 300,000 people in parts of nine counties. On Wednesday, though, the agency refused to provide further money to reimburse local and state agencies that have spent millions of dollars responding to the water crisis.

In a letter, Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, a FEMA administrator, told Tomblin that, "Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that the event was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant grant assistance under this emergency declaration."

Although the letter was dated Monday, the news was not made public until Tomblin sent out a news release Wednesday morning saying he would appeal the decision. He has 30 days to do so.

In the release, the governor said he is "extremely disappointed by FEMA's initial response, and I share the frustration and anger of West Virginians who have endured this crisis."

Tomblin had requested the additional funding for emergency assistance in a letter to FEMA sent on Jan. 27.

The governor estimated that state and local agencies will spend more than $2 million responding to the water crisis. In addition, the state taxpayers will pay 25 percent of the costs of the FEMA aid already provided.

Tomblin's letter requested additional aid, called Category B, Emergency Protective Measures. Those are defined by FEMA as, "activities undertaken by a community before, during and following a disaster," that are necessary to reduce an immediate threat to life, health or safety.

"This is necessary due to the extraordinary expenditures incurred by state and local responding agencies and the adverse effects on the economy and tax revenues," Tomblin wrote. "I must emphasize that the response is ongoing and several of the key agencies have not been able to take the time to provide estimates of their costs.

"One source has estimated that hotels and restaurants have lost $1 million in revenue a day, while other businesses have had to close part of their operation."

Had FEMA approved Tomblin's request, they would have paid 75 percent of eligible costs for first responders, local and state governments, as well as certain nonprofit agencies, according to Amy Shuler Goodwin, Tomblin's communications director.

FEMA spokesman Dan Watson said the agency provided about 7 million liters of water and more than 130,000 meals during the initial response to the spill. Watson said FEMA officials decided the state didn't need any additional help.

"While the initial emergency declaration was approved and resources were provided to support the immediate response, it was determined in this case certain costs associated with the response and recovery efforts were not beyond the response and recovery capabilities of state and local governments," Watson said.

Tomblin said he is working with members of the state's congressional delegation to appeal the decision and get further help from FEMA. "I promised the people of West Virginia I would look out for them and do all that I can to protect their health and well-being," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, said in Tomblin's news release. "My priority remains getting the state the resources it needs from FEMA and the White House to assist West Virginians during this ongoing crisis."

"I will continue to urge FEMA to provide our state with the assistance it needs to address the consequences of the spill," echoed Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he urged, "FEMA to reconsider their decision and work as a partner with the people of West Virginia."

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also decried the FEMA decision.

"I am appalled that FEMA feels that an emergency that leaves 300,000 people without access to clean water is not severe enough to warrant additional federal assistance," Capito said in an emailed statement. "I will continue to work with West Virginia's congressional delegation to urge FEMA to give West Virginians the full assistance they need and deserve."

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper also urged the state's congressional delegation to push for further assistance from FEMA. Carper said expenses for Kanawha County alone are expected to reach $500,000.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said the bottled water problem in the schools is limited to Ice Mountain brand water. The health department immediately halted distribution of the water on Wednesday.

The water was in use at Sharon Dawes Elementary, John Adams Middle and Andrew Jackson middle schools.

The ban on its use applies to one specific lot of Ice Mountain, although other lots of Ice Mountain water in storage have been taken out of circulation, as well.

A spokeswoman for Ice Mountain, which is owned by Nestle, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Neither did Watson, the FEMA spokesman.

County sanitarians investigated after receiving complaints about the water and confirmed the complaints.

"A strong odor or bad taste does not necessarily indicate the water is a health hazard," Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said in the news release.

Gupta said the water had "a musty smell, like from a basement," and he said some people thought it smelled like carrots.

He said the water's expiration date was April 2014.

The bottled water was tested for bacteria and came back negative, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler said.

"The bottled water program has been in contact with the manufacturer regarding the taste and odor concerns and samples have been submitted to the company for further testing and investigation," Adler wrote in an email. "It is believed that the odor is related to where the water bottles were stored prior to being donated to West Virginia's schools."

The county said it has a sufficient supply of other kinds of bottled water in its warehouse.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

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


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