Test results improving in WV water contamination; more samples needed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While officials consider current water test results promising, they said the 300,000 people affected by the Elk River chemical leak could still be without water for days.

The amount of the chemical in the water needs to be below 1 part per million for a consecutive 24 hours, explained Lt. Col. Greg Grant of the West Virginia National Guard.

That number comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, he said. There has been little explanation about how the CDC arrived at that number.

Initial tests Thursday showed readings of 2 to 3 parts per million, Grant said.

Now tests are lower, but not consistently lower for long enough periods of time, Grant said during a late-night press conference Saturday led by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

The amount has dropped some in the water nearest to the West Virginia American Water treatment center affected by the spill, according to a small subset of data provided by the state.

As of 12:30 p.m. Friday, water flowing into the plant tested as high as 3.35 parts per million, according to the data. Water leaving the plant, after going through its treatment process, was at 1.56 parts per million.

Even though officials said the leak has stopped, recorded chemical amounts in the water fluctuated during the day. That was probably because more of the chemical -- known as "crude MCHM" -- was leaching into the water from contaminated soil at the site of the leak, said Mike Dorsey, an official with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Test results consistently remained above 1 parts per million until 9:02 a.m. Saturday, according to released data. At that point, water entering the treatment center tested at 0.7 parts per million and water leaving tested at 0.6 parts per million.

These results do not necessarily mean the water is better throughout the entire West Virginia American Water system, and do not include all tests from the site, said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, head of the West Virginia National Guard.

Water company and state officials say they were taken off guard by the chemical. They said it is not typical for chemicals seen in water spills, and therefore did not have good testing measures in place.

They also didn't know how much of the chemical was able to be consumed safely before receiving the data from the CDC.

After working with the National Guard and chemists from private companies, Hoyer said the tests are now in place and running faster.

Using special equipment, testers are now able to separate the material from the water in samples to determine quantities, Gray said.

They hope to test 100 more sites Sunday and plan to send the results to a private testing company. The company, Test America, has laboratories in Pittsburgh and Canton, Ohio, and has far greater capacity and ability to test the samples, Hoyer said.

Once the water meets the 24-hour threshold, West Virginia American Water can start with the flushing process, said company president Jeff McIntyre. However, he said that process takes time.

In addition to flushing the contaminated water out of the lines, the company needs to be able to continually pump clean water back into those lines.

McIntyre said that process will take several days.

During that process, they anticipate different areas could have access to clean water at different times. Spot checks throughout the system will let the company know if the flushing process is working.

No one from Freedom Industries -- the company responsible for the chemical spill -- spoke at the press conference, and Tomblin's spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said the governor has not personally talked to anyone from the company.

Dorsey said Freedom Industries is in charge of the clean up at its site. The company has already taken the remaining amount of the chemical to a different location in Kanawha County, and employees are using backhoes, boats and other construction equipment to try and deal with the contaminated soil, Dorsey said.

Earlier in the day, Dorsey said company President Gary Southern told him the company had set aside $1 million as part of a plan to help fix its emergency containment system, but did not make the fixes in time.

Repeated messages left with the public relations specialist hired by Freedom Industries after the spill were not returned Saturday.

The chemical leaked through a roughly one-inch hole in its tank. As much as 7,500 gallons is believed to have left the container, with some portion of that amount making it through an old cement block wall and into the Elk River.

The DEP never inspected the site and has only issued a storm water permit for the company, an agency spokesman recently told the Daily Mail. They were not required to inspect the site because chemicals were only stored there, not made or processed, the spokesman said.

Tomblin said he planned to work with the state Legislature to "make sure something like this never happens again."

The West Virginia American Water treatment facility is about 1.5 miles downriver from the site of the leak. The water it provides goes through 1,700 miles of pipeline to homes in nine counties.

More than 2 million liters of fresh water has been shipped into the state, said state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato. Another 800,000 liters is coming Sunday.

More information about how the situation could affect schools this coming week is expected Sunday afternoon.Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

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