Here I sit 16 days after the MCHM spill and water crisis. Four days ago, Daily Mail headlines read: "Public getting mixed messages: Utility head reassures customers" and "Tomblin won't say tap water 'absolutely' safe to consume."
On top of that, I have flushed my home plumbing system according to the water company's instructions and I still smell the licorice odor in my tap water. My family and friends say, "You design water treatment plants - Is the water safe to drink?"
Along with the majority of the 300,000 consumers affected, I have become extremely frustrated with the water crisis. I am an engineer and a chemist and have spent 37 years designing water treatment plants.
I should be able to tell my wife, children, grandchildren and friends whether the tap water is safe. When the licorice odor wafted from our kitchen sink earlier this week, I decided to take what I know about this crisis and apply the same data-driven approach I have used in my career in the water industry.
Let's review what we know:
1. The spill of Crude MCHM about 1.5 miles upstream of West Virginia American Water Co.'s source water intake resulted in a reported 3 parts per million concentration in the water treatment plant.
2. The water company attempted to remove the MCHM using its treatment process.
3. The treatment system was compromised and a concentration (greater than 1 ppm but less than 3 ppm) of MCHM made it to the clearwell, the storage area for treated water where it is disinfected with chlorine prior to being pumped into the distribution system.
4. A decision was made to pump the contaminated water from the clearwell into the 1,700-mile distribution system.
5. The water company and regulatory agencies referred to a Manufacturer's Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the non-hazardous MCHM and used the only toxicity data on that sheet: a rat toxicity data value. With what has been described as shaky math, this data point was extrapolated for humans and a "safe value" for MCHM was determined to be 1 ppm.
6. The odor threshold for MCHM is as low as 0.2 ppm.
7. The good news: MCHM half-life is approximately two weeks and it will eventually degrade and disappear.
8. The bad news is MCHM and its 6 to 7 related compounds have been partially degraded and chlorinated. That means we only know the toxicity of the pure MCHM. The other organic compounds may have different toxicities.
9. To make bad news worse, the partially degraded MCHM is being disinfected with chlorine, as is done at all West Virginia water treatment plants, and new compounds are being formed. It is impossible for me to tell with any degree of certainty the composition of the mixture of partially degraded MCHM and its chlorinated degradation products.
10. Do we give up, hold our nose and drink water that smells like licorice? I say, No.