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Abdul H. Qazi: Steps to protect our water

I have appreciated the Gazette coverage of the water crisis since the spill of approximately 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM into the Elk River upstream from the West Virginia American Water intake.

I enjoyed reading Mr. Jim Lees' commentary "How is this working for you?" and Dawn Miller's "Water: What now?" in the Saturday Gazette-Mail.

The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) provided by Eastman Chemical Company is incomplete and does not address hazards of spills, especially into drinking water, and it should have been provided on day one of the spill by Freedom Industries. The MSDS also does not address the corrosive nature of MCHM and its components. In other words, how long the storage tank can maintain its integrity before corroding to a point of leaking the material out?

Who was responsible for this crisis and made West Virginia an unsafe and unhealthy place for its residents? Clearly, Freedom Industries, West Virginia American Water and West Virginia state departments of Health and Environmental Protection, the Public Service Commission and the Division of Natural Resources (DNR).

Freedom Industries did not provide MSDS for the spilled chemical on time and acted negligently, first denying the spill and then covering it up instead of helping to control the hazard. Almost all chemical processing/manufacturing/storing chemicals are built on or near waterways primarily for ease of transporting as well as disposing of excess/spillovers.

The state does not monitor the spillovers and chemical dumping into the rivers. During 1982-87, when I worked for the Public Health's industrial hygiene section, it was always Ohio officials who traced chemical spills back to the chemical manufacturer in greater Charleston.

West Virginia American Water (the company) is greedy and careless. The company filtration plant consists of several layers of various grades of sand and a layer of activated charcoal. The charcoal layer is there to take care of trace chemical pollutants. With this massive MCHM release on Jan. 9, it is probably saturated by absorbing MCHM and may continue to release the chemical for some time to come unless cleaned thoroughly or replaced completely. The smell and/or odor will be there until all the absorbed chemical is leached out or replaced completely. The company has been getting rate increases from the PSC but has done nothing or very little to improve infrastructure and to safeguard the water.

I believe the following steps would assure citizens of the safety of water they are using, drinking and paying for:

1. The water company must relocate its water intake at least 1/4 to 1/2 a mile upstream from any chemical facility (including manufacturing, storing and distributing).

2. The company shall take charcoal bed samples from several locations, desorbing MCHM from these by using an organic solvent and analyzing samples by gas chromatography or other methods to determine the residual amount of MCHM, and share the results with the state agencies.

3. The company should replace the charcoal bed if results show presence of considerable amounts of MCHM in the existing charcoal bed.

4. The state agencies (Health, DEP, PSC and DNR) must make sure that the water intake is properly relocated upstream to any existing chemical facility. They shall also develop a system for periodic inspections, monitoring and maintaining records of all chemical plants located on state waterways. Competent and well-trained personnel can do this job.

5. The DNR and DEP must monitor existing facilities for corrosion of storage tanks over time and the chemical storage tanks must maintain minimum thickness for continued use.

6. When water intake is relocated then no chemical or polluting company shall be allowed upstream of the water intake.

7. West Virginia must allow other water companies to come in and compete with West Virginia American Water.

Qazi, of Charleston, is a retired occupational/environmental safety and health officer from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and formerly worked for the state health department.


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