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Emergency over, House debate on water regulatory bill continues

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty days later, the emergency is over.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday rescinded the state of emergency he had declared in nine West Virginia counties on Jan. 9, in response to the chemical leak that contaminated the water of 300,000 residents.

Tomblin's proclamation says state agencies will continue monitoring public-health concerns and that the Department of Environmental Protection will continue to supervise the cleanup and razing of the Freedom Industries tank farm, from where the chemical leaked into the Elk River.

The proclamation comes as the vast majority of state government tests on the region's water system show nondetectable levels of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM.

As Tomblin made his proclamation, the House of Delegates continued, in response to the water crisis, to debate a bill that would force water systems to improve their crisis planning and regulate above-ground storage tanks.

The House Judiciary Committee met for more than five hours Friday but took no substantive action.

The committee heard from water systems experts and from Jeff McIntyre, the president of West Virginia American Water, in an effort to inform its members.

The committee spent little time addressing the actual bill -- the fourth draft with wholesale changes.

Jerry Schulte, a manager with ORSANCO, a multi-state water resource commission, told the committee about gas chromatographs, which can detect the presence of chemicals in water.

He said the Cincinnati water system has 11 of the machines, which could have given West Virginia American more warning that the chemical was in the Elk River.

West Virginia American's plant along the Elk does not have a gas chromatograph, but McIntyre said, even if it had one, nothing would have changed.

He said the company knew about the contamination before the chemical reached the water-treatment plant and had sufficient time to add more activated carbon -- the company's normal response -- but the volume of the chemical overwhelmed the plant's capabilities.

"Having a different type of detection system wouldn't have changed the outcome in this situation," McIntyre said.

McIntyre also said company representatives previously had visited Freedom Industries in an attempt to determine what was stored in the tanks directly upstream from the water intake.

"Our people drove to the site but were not physically able to get onto the site," McIntyre said. He did not go into further detail and did not have any documentation to confirm the attempt.

On the morning of Jan. 10, a Gazette-Mail reporter was able to walk onto the Freedom Industries site, speak with a company representative and briefly wander about.

Freedom had filed publicly available reports with the state government, going back to at least 2007, stating what chemicals were held in its tanks.

McIntyre was accompanied at the hearing by Kelley Goes, an attorney representing the company. Goes is the former director of Sen. Joe Manchin's state office.

McIntyre reiterated that West Virginia American and its parent company, American Water Works, will not provide financial relief to customers beyond the approximately $10 in credits they have said will cover flushing at residences.

He said people who have reported high water bills likely flushed their pipes in an attempt to rid their water of the chemical's telltale licorice odor. The flushing procedures, he said, were designed to get the chemical below a higher 1 part per million standard set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not to rid the water of odor.

"Some people took it upon themselves to flush until the odor was gone," McIntyre said. "People who did that didn't follow our advice."

McIntyre compared the contaminated water with chlorinated water, saying that, just because you can smell something in water - such as chlorine -- doesn't mean it's unsafe.

"There's lots of things that we smell every day that don't necessarily do us any harm," he said.

That comparison didn't sit well with some delegates.

"I was shocked to hear Mr. McIntyre's arrogant attitude towards West Virginia American Water customers," said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson. "His inability to understand that licorice poison water is not something that people should drink shows an utter detachment from reality of what happened, and, quite frankly, contempt for the people of the Kanawha Valley."

Ann Goldberg, director of public-health regulations for the state Bureau of Public Health, told the committee there are no plans for any kind of long-term medical monitoring in relation to the water crisis.

Goldberg said the challenges of such a study -- who to study and what kind of information to collect -- are enormous.

"Unless some funding source came forward that said we think it's important to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's not within the budget of the of the Bureau of Public Health to do that," Goldberg said.

Allison Adler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Resources, later wrote to clarify Goldberg's statement.

"DHHR is reviewing a long term plan that could include studies as well as medical monitoring," Adler wrote in an email. "We are awaiting results from the CDC review of medical charts to ensure the plan is comprehensive. However, funding will be needed to implement any plan."

The Judiciary Committee plans to meet again Sunday afternoon to consider and amend the bill.

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


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