CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Monday told 300,000 state residents that they should make their own decisions about using water from West Virginia American Water's Elk River plant in the wake of this month's leak of the chemical Crude MCHM.
"It's your decision," the governor told reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. "If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water."
Tomblin emphasized that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the water is safe as long as it contains less than 1 part per million of the coal-cleaning chemical, which leaked into the Elk River from the Freedom Industries tank farm 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake.
Outside public health experts, though, have said the lack of much data on the chemical -- not an unusual situation for most chemicals -- makes it hard to be sure the CDC number is adequately protective, especially for young children.
Tomblin said he did not know about a U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Register (ATSDR) recommendation that state officials advise affected residents to flush their home plumbing systems until they no longer smelled the chemical's licorice odor.
When asked why the state rejected the ATSDR's advice, Tomblin said, "I'm not aware that we did. I have not seen that."
The leak from Freedom Industries prompted a do-not-use order that covered 100,000 West Virginia American customers -- roughly 300,000 people -- across a nine-county region starting at about 5 p.m. Jan. 9.
Last week, officials with the water company and the state government gradually cleared all affected areas to resume using their tap water as sampling showed concentrations of Crude MCHM dropping below a 1-part-per-million screening level set by the CDC. The exception was an advisory, issued late Thursday, that pregnant women across the region drink only bottled water until absolutely no Crude MCHM is detected in water supplies.
As the water company's Internet map listed more and more areas moving into the "blue" area that officials said was safe, area residents were told to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for five minutes, and outside faucets for five minutes to flush the chemical from their homes.
But some residents have complained about odors during the flushing, and also that a licorice smell is lingering in their water days after they followed the flushing guidance.
In a prepared statement, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said that a Charleston Gazette story was the first time that West Virginia American had heard about the ATDSR recommendation on flushing times. But she said the recommendation would not have changed the company's advice to customers.
"Simply flushing until no odor is detected is not based upon the CDC's health recommendation and would have been an irresponsible instruction, as this excessive action would have emptied the water system and caused customers to go without water that was already determined to be under the health protective threshold for an indefinite amount of time," Jordan said in an email message.
The most recent water sampling data made available by state officials included samples taken through 6 p.m. on Jan. 18, and showed an increasing number of locations where none of the chemical could be detected.