Officials say water testing continues, but slow process
Asking for continued patience, water company and state officials said it takes time to make sure drinking water for thousands of people isn't still contaminated by a recent chemical spill.
Another 13,000 West Virginia American Water customers got the go-ahead Tuesday to start flushing their pipes. Some 61,000 customers were still without water to cook with, bathe in or drink.
There was still no timeline for full restoration.
"We're taking extremely serious the direction that the governor has given to us and what the water company wants to provide to their customers, and that is safe water," said Adj. Gen. James Hoyer, head of the West Virginia National Guard.
Hoyer spoke in a press conference Tuesday evening at the state Capitol alongside Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other officials involved in the team that is assessing the spill.
Fifteen separate sites across a 3,000-square-mile region tested above what officials consider to be the safe amount of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in water.
That's why it's important no one starts flushing before his or her area is cleared, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.
"If they get out ahead of us, they're putting themselves at risk," he said.
Officials believe as much as 7,500 gallons of the chemical, also known as crude MCHM, started leaking early Thursday morning from a storage tank at Freedom Industries' facility near the Elk River. The leak happened about 8,000 feet from the intake at the water company's treatment plant.
The water company issued a do-not-use advisory Thursday evening after the chemical "overwhelmed" the treatment plant's filtration system.
That advisory remains in effect for thousands in a nine-county area. Those affected include businesses and homes.
About 24,000 customers in and around downtown Charleston were able to flush their systems Monday evening.
As of late Tuesday, a total of 39,000 customers had been cleared for flushing, McIntrye said.
That includes at least 200 restaurants in the cleared areas, Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said. There's no definitive estimate as to the number of people now with water deemed to be safe.
Test results at the company's water treatment plant look great, Hoyer said. As of 2 p.m. Monday water going into and coming out of the plant showed no signs at all of the chemical, Jordan said.
After early Monday morning the highest amount of the chemical recorded entering the facility was 0.018 parts per million, recorded at 11 p.m. Monday. The highest leaving the plant was 0.016, recorded at the same time, according to data provided by Hoyer.
A rainstorm Monday night probably played a role in that spike, McIntyre said.
Peak detection for the amount of the chemical entering the water company's plant in Huntington was 0.036 parts per million, recorded at 4 a.m. Monday, Jordan said. The highest amount recorded leaving the plant was 0.009 parts per million, recorded at 8 a.m. Monday, she said.
McIntyre has repeatedly said anything less than 1 part per million is safe for use, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The distinct black licorice odor remains until levels drop below 0.01 parts per million.
There's been little specific information provided by the CDC as to how they arrived at their decision to use 1 part per million. Local public health officials agree it is an appropriate measure.
Of the 15 sites where the water tested above the bar for the chemical, seven showed amounts below 1 part per million on two subsequent tests.
Of the eight remaining sites, one of the highest recorded amounts was in Putnam County at a location off of W.Va. 34. It showed 2.518 parts per million Monday morning.
A different fire hydrant showed a 2.831 parts-per-million level of the chemical in the water, but no date for the test was given.
McIntyre said he didn't feel comfortable providing exact details about the locations of the 15 sites that tested above 1 part per million.
Customer complaints continued to pour in to the water company Tuesday, said spokeswoman Laura Jordan.
People wanted to know why it's taking as much time as it is to clear areas to start flushing, and why in some cases people who flushed their systems found dirty water.
The dirty water was not unexpected, McIntyre said. There's regular build-up of material in these pipes, he said. Whenever there's a change in speed of the water flowing through the pipes, that can dislodge some sediment, he said.
People reported a variety of unusual colors -- green, brown, red, blue -- in their water after their pipes were flushed. Jordan said if that happens, the company recommends waiting about an hour and going through the detailed flushing protocol again.
The water company devised the protocol through its years of expertise, McIntyre said. He didn't provide further information about how the times or order involved were derived, but said the state Department of Health and Human Resources signed off on the procedure.
@subhed:Hours, not minutes
Collecting and analyzing tests takes hours, not minutes, Hoyer and McIntyre said.
There are 30 teams of people from the National Guard and water company collecting samples from more than 400 fire hydrants in the affected area, Jordan said. They've analyzed more than 1,000 samples, McIntyre said.
The duration time for processing samples is anywhere from six to 12 hours, Jordan said.
The state needs to ship many of those samples to a total of five testing facilities, several of which are owned by a private company with sites in Pittsburgh and Canton, Ohio.
They've driven and flown by helicopter many of the samples to those sites, Hoyer said. There are also five mobile sites set up at the water company's Charleston treatment plant, Jordan said.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires at least 40 percent of the tests to be confirmed by dual sampling, or testing samples from the same spot twice.
Overall, there's still a seven-step process the team is following before its ready to officially clear a zone, Jordan said. Jordan and McIntyre both characterized it as "complicated."
A few more areas were allowed to proceed Tuesday morning, but the flushing process is different for every zone, explained water company president Jeff McIntyre. Elevation and proximity to additional water storage tanks -- which both affect water pressure throughout the system -- can add time.
McIntyre told customers to continue to rely on the website created by the company to see when they are able to starting flushing their systems.
The sites had a few problems.
There were 10,000 hits within the first two minutes it was made available, McIntyre said. That slowed everything down, but eventually the company was able to accommodate higher traffic. There have been about 1.14 million hits at the site, averaging about 1,000 views a minute.
That meant many people were able to see a "communication problem" that occurred involving an area in Charleston's South Hills and George Washington regions.
For about five minutes the region was blue on the website, the color that means customers can flush. It was then changed back to red, prompting customer anger and questions.
Anyone who flushed pipes during that time should be fine, the water company said in a statement. Several tests for the area said the water was fine, the company said.
The site was cleared for flushing later Tuesday afternoon.
McIntyre apologized for the mistake and took full responsibility. He said the company was trying to prepare ahead of time for when to expect areas to be ready for flushing.
He said he would personally make the decision when to change an area's color going forward.
McIntyre said the company is not re-testing water in areas that have already been cleared. The system has an inherent design that prevents any back flow of potentially contaminated water, Tomblin said.
"It's like trying to get water back into a garden hose," McIntyre said.
Tomblin again pledged to look at emergency reporting requirements and state Department of Environmental Protection regulations to make sure "something like this never happens again."
Jimmy Gianato, head of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said officials would close water distribution sites in cleared areas and send more water to areas still under the advisory.
Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, made no public statements Tuesday, nor has it made any statements since a brief press conference from company President Gary Southern