Review Of West Virginia Water Finds More Work To Be Done

This week, an independent team testing water quality at homes in West Virginia released some results, and met with residents. They found that small amounts of coal-cleaning chemical are still present in residents' water.

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A group of independent researchers has found that the chemical crude MCHM is still present in some West Virginia homes. That's the coal-cleaning chemical that spilled into the Elk River back in January out of a storage tank operated by the company Freedom Industries. The spill contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. The research group was formed by West Virginia's governor after public pressure.

Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on the research group's latest findings.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Samples taken from 10 homes across the affected area in mid-February showed traces of MCHM, with the highest levels at one home coming in at 6.1 parts per billion. That's hundreds of times lower than the CDC's short-term drinking water screening level.

WV TAP project manager Dr. Andrew Whelton notes the levels of MCHM in the homes are also lower than the state-established screening level of 10 parts per billion.

DR. ANDREW WHELTON: The public should feel encouraged that the levels that were detected in the homes are significantly less than January 17th and significantly less than when the spill occurred. There is, however, a low level of MCHM being distributed to the population from the water treatment plant. So there still remains this issue of persistence of this chemical in the water system.

MISTICH: In addition, recent testing conducted by WV TAP also indicated that MCHM wasn't present just before West Virginia American Water's Elk River intake. However, Whelton says traces of the chemical were found in a nearby home, leading them to believe that the chemical was being added to the water supply at the treatment plant.

WHELTON: The results of that testing that we conducted for a different purpose actually helped us determine that MCHM was leaving the water plant but wasn't entering it, and therefore it's likely that it was a source of MCHM for the community.

MISTICH: Whelton and company then recommended the water company to collect samples before intake after and within their treatment facility. Ultimately, those results indicate that the filtering process was the source of the chemical continuing to make its way through the distribution system.

Here's Laura Jordan of West Virginia American Water.

LAURA JORDAN: These results that we got back this week change nothing about the commitment that we've made to our customers ever since January 19th was the first time that we, in my recollection, that we announced to our customers we will be changing out all of the activated carbon in our filters as soon as conditions allow.

MISTICH: Jordan says the filter change is a weekslong process, with weather and other variables playing a role. Nevertheless, the company has been under fire for not acting sooner.

Elkview resident Perry Dotson says he and his wife have experienced rashes, even after taking his doctor's recommendation to take baths in cold water.

PERRY DOTSON: I think the water company needs to be more aggressive in installing these new filters. It does not do very much good to be two or three months down the road to finish, you know, that process. And I think they need to move quicker and faster to get those filters out.

MISTICH: As WV TAP plans to expand their in-home testing to a larger scale, they've charged a group of health effects experts to examine available toxicological research on MCHM. And while that panel is expected to release some conclusions this coming week, including scrutinizing the short-term drinking water screening levels suggested by the CDC, some, like Dotson, clamor for long-term medical monitoring.

DOTSON: Well, I think that's the bottom line, you know? What this stuff is going to do to the 300,000 people who have been exposed to this chemical now and in the future? And I think that's really the bottom line. You know, you want to protect your people from any particular problems that may occur, you know? And so if need be, set up some kind of monitoring system.

MISTICH: And Dotson may get his wish. A bill passed by the state legislature is set to require the Bureau for Public Health to conduct long-term medical monitoring. However, the bill awaits Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's signature, and a deadline for that to happen looms only until Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston, West Virginia.

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