CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State officials knew there were water problems and health issues reported at Midland Trail Elementary School three days before the school abruptly shut down for a day and a half for those same reasons earlier this month.
On Feb. 5, a Wednesday, students at Midland Trail and Riverside High School, both in the Belle area, were sent home after several people reported that they felt nauseous and dizzy, and there were widespread complaints of a strong licorice odor associated with Crude MCHM, the chemical that leaked from a Freedom Industries tank farm into the Elk River and contaminated the region's drinking water in early January.
A Riverside teacher fainted and was taken to the hospital, along with a student. There were additional complaints of burning eyes and noses and lightheadedness. Both schools also were closed on Feb. 6.
The symptoms were reported as the schools were in the process of re-flushing their water lines after the odor was blatant on both Monday and Tuesday of that week.
But health issues already had been reported.
On Feb. 2, a Sunday, Amy Shuler Goodwin, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's communications director, emailed state health and safety officials about the problem.
"All: I have had three calls today about Midland Trail Elementary," Goodwin wrote, just before 2 p.m. "The cook has rashes from using the dishwasher. Someone has suggested to them they need the hot water tank drained. And maybe someone to help them flush. Who can help me with this. Parents worried."
Goodwin got several responses but no immediate resolution.
The responses illustrate the disconnect between citizens, who have reported lingering smells and resulting symptoms related to the water, and officials who point to "nondetectable" levels of the chemical.
Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the leader of the West Virginia National Guard, wrote back almost immediately, saying that four days earlier the school showed no evidence of MCHM.
"Midland Trail Elementary was non detect at 10 ppb [parts per billion]. Collected on 1/28 at 1354 hours," Hoyer wrote, meaning 1:54 p.m. Jan. 28. "Would have to defer to BPH [Bureau of Public Health] on other reasons."
(The state's "nondetect" level does not mean there is no Crude MCHM in the water; it just means there is less than 10 parts per billion of the chemical. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said water is appropriate for use if it has less than 1 part per million of MCHM, a standard 100 times more lenient than the state's "nondetect" level.)
Two officials with the state Bureau of Public Health emailed to say they had contacted the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to try to see what was going on.
The Health Department also was aware of issues at Midland Trail, the emails show.
"I spoke with Nasandra Wright with the KCHD," Brad Cochran, a BPH official wrote that Sunday night. "They will have someone visit the site first thing tomorrow morning. The KCHD was recently made aware as someone also reported the situation to their emergency after hours call line."
Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, then wrote to thank everyone for their work.
The Gazette-Mail obtained the emails from Tomblin's office following a request under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act made Feb. 10, although an unknown amount of emails were withheld under the "internal memorandum" exemption.
Wright, the sanitarian supervisor for the KCHD, said they inspected Midland Trail at 8:40 a.m. Monday, Feb. 3.
The report that KCHD filed, also obtained under the state's public-records law, found the licorice odor in three classrooms as well as at the school's dishwasher.
At 7:15 that morning, as classes were starting at Riverside High, half a mile away from Midland Trail Elementary, there were already problems.
"We smelled it. When we came in Monday there was a strong licorice odor present, and an oily substance was noticed," Riverside Principal Valery Harper told The Charleston Gazette at the time. "I got on the intercom and told the kids what I know, and they've handled it like troupers."