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Dayton Carpenter: Is the water safe to drink?

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.

What can we do?

1. There is an analytical instrument called a Total Organic Carbon analyzer that can provide a relative concentration of all the organic compounds in the water.

2. Many large water treatment plants throughout the U.S. use this analyzer as an early warning device for spills of unknown organic chemicals. The intake and the finished water clearwell are analyzed to ensure a spill does not affect the water plant or compromise the treatment process.

When organic compound concentrations increase above acceptable levels, the intake is closed and the plant is shut down until the spill passes.

3. The water company and the regulatory agencies have historical organic compound data on the Elk River. The background levels of naturally-occurring compounds are generally low and change seasonally.

The water company and regulatory agencies should immediately collect water samples from the Elk River above the spill to determine a near representative pre-spill organic compound concentration.

This data should be compared to historical organic compound data collected over the years at the water company intake. These background and historic levels should be used to determine if the water pumped into the treatment plant currently meets values observed before the spill.

4. The water company must comply with the Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule (DBPR) and has been a participant in the data collection since at least 1998, according to records publicly available. The DBPR applies to all state community water systems.

Drinking water supplies must disinfect to remove or inactivate microbial pathogens. Disinfectants can react with natural organic matter in the water and form by-products. The disinfectant rule aims to reduce the potential risk of adverse health effects associated with those byproducts.

5. In the days since the spill, I have not seen any mention of total organic compounds, the disinfection byproducts rule, and other regulated compounds by the water company or the regulatory agencies.

Water company customers are not dumb. They are extremely passionate when it comes to safe water.

I strongly recommend the water company and the regulatory agencies obtain and share this data as measured in the water distribution system at critical locations in each pressure zone. When the regulated contaminants are within "safe" levels; then and only then will my family and I drink and cook with the public water.

West Virginians are tough and smart. We will persevere and get through this. If the water company wants to instill consumer confidence, it should be forthcoming with the data discussed above so we, as customers, can make informed decisions on what is safe for our families.  

Hopefully, in the near future, I can answer my grandchildren's question: Is the water safe to drink?

Dayton Carpenter is a board certified environmental engineer, consulting water chemist and president of his company, Carpenter Treatment Solutions, PLLC.


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