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Water company certain MCHM is out of system

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

West Virginia American Water Co. on Tuesday released the results of a series of water samples that the company said shows there “is no reason to believe” that chemicals from the January leak at Freedom Industries remain in the region’s drinking water system.

The samples were taken June 5-11, after the water company had finished changing the filters at its Elk River treatment plant but before two spills last Thursday and Friday at the Freedom Industries site.

In a prepared statement announcing the test results, West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre said his company “voluntarily undertook this effort to continue to rebuild customer confidence in the water system” and to “confirm that our water is the truly excellent quality that our customers expect.”

“We listened to our customers’ concerns, and we believe these recent test results demonstrate that there is no reason to believe MCHM is sticking to pipes or otherwise remaining in the distribution system,” McIntyre said.

University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, a leader of the team hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to investigate the leak’s effects, called West Virginia American’s latest water system testing “a tremendous step forward for the people who were affected by the contaminated water incident.” Whelton said the water company’s testing initiative was “a demonstration that public health is important,” and credited the water company for using the laboratory “with the lowest detection limit for MCHM.”

“The next step is to consider water distribution-wide tap water sampling in residential homes,” Whelton said.

Tomblin has not yet said whether the state will fund additional home testing.

With its Tuesday statement, West Virginia American released a list of 49 samples taken from various locations across the company’s 1,900-mile distribution system in Charleston and the surrounding area.

All 49 samples came back with “non-detect” results for 4-MCHM, the main chemical from the January leak, after being analyzed by Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories, the facility whose detection limit of 0.38 parts per billion is able to spot the chemical at much lower levels than other, local labs.

The water company said two samples were taken in each of the 24 zones that its distribution system was divided into for the purposes of lifting the January do-not-use order issued after the leak. A final sample was taken at the point where the system is connected to the Queen Shoals Public Service District, the company said.

“Restoring full water service and full confidence in our water was not just our job — it was our promise to our neighbors and our families in the communities we serve,” McIntyre said.

The water company results come as Freedom Industries is being pressed by state regulators to improve its stormwater runoff control measures at the site of the January leak following two incidents last week in which potentially contaminated runoff overflowed a collection trench and poured into the Elk River.

West Virginia American sent samples from the first of those incidents, on Thursday, to the Eurofins Lancaster facility for testing. Those samples came back with non-detect results for 4-MCHM, said water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan.

The water company took samples after the second Freedom stormwater incident, on Friday, but sent those results only to its own local laboratory in Huntington, which has a detection capability of 10 ppb — meaning it cannot detect levels nearly as low as Eurofins. No samples from the Friday incident were sent to Eurofins.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said the Friday stormwater spill coincided with a heavy rain that began at about 5 p.m. The spill lasted about 50 minutes, the DEP has said. West Virginia American shut off its Elk River water intake pumps from about 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and noted that the Friday incident “was potentially a larger overflow of longer duration than Thursday’s.”

Jordan said Tuesday that samples from Thursday’s event were sent to Eurofins “out of an abundance of caution” and that the water company believed “there was no need for additional testing” by Eurofins following Friday’s spill.

In Tuesday’s news release, McIntyre referred to the water company’s sampling as “this final round of testing” and said the results “should further alleviate uncertainty about the quality of the water distribution system following the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries spill.”

Whelton and the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, the group hired by Tomblin, have urged the state to conduct additional sampling and testing of home tap water after the completion of the filter replacement at West Virginia American’s treatment plant.

Research by Whelton has found that MCHM has “some, but limited, permeation” with home plumbing system materials. Whelton said those results were “promising” but that more research was needed to provide “a more definitive picture.”

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


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