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Bad water was reported 3 days before school closed

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."

In its report, the KCHD recommended that the schools re-flush their pipes, that the National Guard collect new water samples, and that the schools then notify the KCHD so it could do another inspection.

But flushing didn't happen until the morning of Feb. 5, after kids had been in the schools for two days. Flushing was still going on as students arrived at school Feb. 5, kicking up the odors that many have blamed for the illnesses reported that day.

West Virginia American Water was doing its own flushing of a large tank in Belle the night of Feb. 4 and throughout the next day, which interfered with the school's flushing.

Laura Jordan, a water company spokeswoman, said the schools should not have been flushing their pipes that Wednesday morning.

"I'm not sure why they flushed at the school that morning," Jordan wrote in an email. "Once it was determined that we were going to drain the tank and do additional flushing, it would have been best for the school to wait for us to contact them when the full tank draining and hydrant flushing efforts were complete before they began flushing the school again."

Jordan said the water company told local and state officials of its plans on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Goodwin and Liza Cordeiro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, did not respond to questions about the flushing or any actions the state took after receiving the KCHD report Monday, Feb. 3.

State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares was included in Goodwin's chain of emails, and knew of that Sunday's water complaints.

Despite that, on Wednesday, as the schools were being flushed, Phares said that the flushing was unrelated to the chemical and the odors.

"We were made [aware] earlier today that there was a odor detected at both Midland Trail and Riverside in Kanawha County," Phares said at a news conference on Wednesday. "Kanawha County had actually received the OK to flush the lines in the schools, not because of the MCH[M] but because of discoloration of the water. There had been a water line break earlier in the week."

Jordan confirmed that there was a large main break in Belle that Tuesday evening that caused the discoloration.

After the problems at Midland Trail and Riverside, and after the chemical was found at detectable levels at several other schools, the state established a "rapid response team" to deal with the chemical issues.

That team is composed of experts from KCHD, the West Virginia National Guard and the state Department of Environmental Protection's air quality division.

The team is tasked with deciding when to shut down or evacuate schools because of water complaints, but its protocol for doing so is vague.

For instance, last Monday, the "rapid response team" investigated complaints at four Kanawha County schools. Students were dismissed early from Grandview Elementary, in North Charleston, but class continued as scheduled in the other three, with little rationale given as to what was different.

When asked for guidelines or documentation that the "rapid response team" uses, Cordeiro said that the guidelines were developed in early February but offered little specific information.

Cordeiro sent the Gazette-Mail a "Rapid Response Team Approach" document that says, "The team will join the maintenance crew and responding county emergency management personnel at the school. Together, they will assess the situation."

The document also says the team will speak to school staff to "track down what prompted the complaint" and will perform "spot checks and random testing" of the water.

On Thursday evening, the state Department of Education sent out a news release announcing that Tomblin had called for additional water sampling in the 109 schools affected by the chemical leak, and will now test water for levels of MCHM at 2 parts per billion.

"Student safety continues to be our top priority," Tomblin said in the release. "As a parent, I understand that families need the additional peace of mind that comes with this testing."

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

Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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