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WVAW chief defends water firm's MCHM actions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Knowing what chemicals Freedom Industries stored just upstream from West Virginia American Water's intake wouldn't have helped the water company better plan its response to the Elk River leak, the company's president said Wednesday.

Jeff McIntyre said having more information about Crude MCHM before the Jan. 9 leak might have helped his company better communicate with the public about the incident after it happened, but that having data about Crude MCHM and other chemicals Freedom stored would not have changed West Virginia American's decision not to close its drinking-water intake, located just 1.5 miles downstream from the leak site.

Additionally, McIntyre would not say if knowing what chemicals Freedom stored would have helped West Virginia American work in advance to develop sampling methods, toxicological information or potential treatment technologies for MCHM.

"I'm not going to answer speculation," McIntyre said in an interview with Charleston Gazette editors and reporters. "You're asking hypothetical questions."

In a 90-minute discussion, McIntyre defended his company's actions over the past two months, saying the real culprit is Freedom Industries, whose poorly maintained storage tank leaked, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 people across the region.

"We're not at fault," McIntyre said. "We didn't cause this event."

McIntyre said his company doesn't believe the filters at its Elk River treatment plant were "impacted" by the MCHM leak but that the filters are going to be changed anyway, to address public concerns.

Work on the filter change is scheduled to start April 1 and could take up to 8 weeks, McIntyre said.

McIntyre also said he realizes residents are still concerned when the licorice-like smell of MCHM periodically returns to their home tap water but that he doesn't have any idea how long such problems will continue to resurface.

"I can't predict that," McIntyre said. "I can tell you we're getting less and less complaints. There is no end date on when we're going to stop working on this."

McIntyre said there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the flushing process recommended by state officials and the company. The point of it wasn't to rid home plumbing of any trace of MCHM -- and certainly not of its smell -- but simply to reduce chemical levels below the 1-part-per-million concentration recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, McIntyre said.

He said he trusts the CDC and had not read news accounts quoting public-health experts who questioned how the agency calculated its MCHM "screening level."

Repeating his earlier explanation, McIntyre said West Virginia American did not close its intake when it learned of the MCHM leak because doing so would have quickly depleted the water needed for firefighting and sanitation.

The plant already was low on water, because of weather-related line breaks and extra use by customers to avoid frozen pipes. The supply on hand could have run out within 10 hours, McIntyre said, and getting the entire system back up and running might have taken 30 days or more.

McIntyre recounted that West Virginia American officials had, at some point in the past, tried to get information directly from Freedom Industries about its operations but that Freedom declined to talk to the water company. McIntyre said he did not have details about when those discussions occurred or what was said.

However, he said his company did not try to obtain publicly available chemical inventory forms that Freedom had filed every year with state and local governments.

"We did not know what was in those tanks up there," McIntyre said. "I don't know the exact reason we didn't get that information."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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