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Water response team called to four schools Monday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A "rapid response team" assembled by the state Department of Education to deal with water issues in schools following last month's chemical leak responded to complaints at four Kanawha County schools Monday.

Grandview Elementary School in North Charleston was the only one of the four schools ordered to close early. Students were dismissed there at 12:15 p.m., after the odor associated with Crude MCHM -- the chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries on Jan. 9 and left about 300,000 West Virginians without potable water for days -- was reported.

Several teachers also complained of headaches, according to Kanawha County Schools Maintenance Director Terry Hollandsworth. Later Monday, state Department of Education officials said in a news release that only two school employees complained of health symptoms, and there were no reports of students displaying symptoms.

The school's faucets were to be flushed again Monday and re-tested for levels of MCHM. School is expected to be in session Tuesday, and the response team will visit as staff arrives, according to the release.

The rapid response team -- made up of officials from the health department, the National Guard, the Department of Environmental Protection and local school and emergency personnel -- also inspected John Adams Middle School, Sharon Dawes Elementary School and Alum Creek Elementary School on Monday because of water issues, Hollandsworth said.

Water samples were taken from all four schools and results were still pending as of 6 p.m. Monday, according to the Department of Education.

The licorice odor was reported in the kitchen at John Adams, Hollandsworth said, while the odor reported at Sharon Dawes was initially reported as "a sweet smell."

At Alum Creek, the water in one of the school's sinks contained a black, oily substance because of "a bad feeder tube." A break in a water supply line allowed debris into the system, and is not believed to be related to the chemical leak, Hollandsworth said.

The members of the response team who are on-site decide whether schools should close because of water issues, he said.

In Grandview's case, the odor was reported by numerous teachers -- even though Hollandsworth couldn't smell it himself -- but at Sharon Dawes, health officials did not detect a smell, he said.

"They got there [Grandview] and could smell a low odor," he said. "We investigate first, then decide if it's appropriate to send students home."

There are still no plans to conduct air tests in addition to water tests, despite complaints about burning eyes, fainting and other symptoms that could be related to inhaling the water's fumes.

DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said that inspectors from the agency's Division of Air Quality are part of the school response team, but that the DEP's role "isn't real involved."

"They don't do any air sampling," Aluise said. "Because they take smell sensitivity training as part of their normal training to be DAQ inspectors, the response team thought it would be beneficial to have them on hand to help detect odors or to rule out other potential sources of odors."

Earlier this month, odor complaints were reported at Riverside High School and Midland Trail Elementary on a Monday after students and teachers reported back to school following the weekend break.

Whether that time off over the weekend with no faucets running creates an abnormally strong odor once faucets are turned on on Monday is unknown, Hollandsworth said.

"I would be guessing," he said. "I don't know."

The school system is not regularly flushing faucets while students are out of class, and only re-flush schools where complaints are made, Hollandsworth said.

Staff writer Ken Ward contributed to this report. Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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