CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Government investigators are still trying to determine exactly how much of a toxic chemical that spilled at the Freedom Industries tank farm along the Elk River soaked into the ground and could later leach into the river, a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said Wednesday evening.
"An investigation is going on to figure out where there might be any materials in the ground and, so far, that investigation is still going on," EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin told the Charleston on Wednesday.
Asked if that meant officials simply don't know how much of the "Crude MCHM" is still in the soil and could reach the river without proper containment and cleanup measures, Garvin said, "I think that's probably . . . we're still investigating to ensure we have a complete answer to that."
Garvin praised West Virginia officials and other federal agencies for what he said was a "swift" response to the spill.
"Clearly, if you've got a drinking water system that serves up to 300,000 people that is compromised, it's a fairly serious incident," he said. "That's why we got engaged as quickly as we could."
Initially, Garvin said he thought officials had a "pretty good handle" on what he called "source control." Asked if that meant investigators knew how much material had leaked and had been able to ensure that no more of it would ever reach the Elk River or the West Virginia American Water intake 1.5 miles downstream, Garvin offered a more complicated answer.
"There's a lot of activity on the ground, with creating trenches," he said. "There's also boring going on and other things going on to get a handle on answering the question that you have raised, to see how much we can tell that might be in the ground that has the potential of leaching out into the water body."
Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said later that he agreed with Garvin.
"We don't know exactly. Maybe it's not clear is the right word," Huffman said. "The response to that is continued remediation efforts, which we're going to ensure continues to take place."
Huffman added, "I can say for certainty that the state of West Virginia is not going to abandon that site or abandon the remediation efforts until there is 100-percent certainty that the risk of this stuff getting back in the water has been eliminated -- not just minimized.
"I know what my boss is going to say about that, and I think I can make that statement," said Huffman, who is a gubernatorial appointee. "We just can't have that possibility existing."
Asked how long that kind of a cleanup would take, Huffman said, "That's likely the multimillion-dollar question, I think."
Huffman also said Wednesday that a trench dug on the site to try to block water runoff from the operation had been filling with water, which officials believe might have been coming from a water line leak along Barlow Drive. West Virginia American Water replaced a line Wednesday to fix that problem, Huffman said.
Garvin's remarks Wednesday evening were the EPA's first significant public comments about the spill a week ago that fouled drinking water supplies for 300,000 people across a nine-county region around Charleston.
Over the past four years, the EPA has become an almost-constant punching bag for West Virginia's coal industry and the politicians who support it. Mining officials and elected leaders repeatedly denounce what they call a "war on coal," and blast EPA regulatory and enforcement efforts as "federal overreach."
However, in the ongoing crisis since the chemical spill, EPA officials had been nowhere to be found prior to Garvin's interview. They might have been working behind the scenes, but EPA officials had not appeared at government briefings and had refused repeated interview requests.
Garvin reiterated prepared agency statements that said the state government was taking the lead in responding to the spill. He said the EPA would not take over unless there was an "imminent and substantial" danger that West Virginia agencies were not able to handle or were not handling appropriately.
"We feel that activities that are going on, on the ground, under the state lead and the contractors and the water department are what anybody else would be doing, so we're just providing support," Garvin said.
Garvin said he was not familiar with new information that emerged Wednesday that Freedom Industries had taken toxic materials from the spill site for storage at a Nitro facility where DEP officials later allegedly found a variety of environmental violations.
Also, Garvin said, he believes the spill response has been handled in a "transparent manner," despite the refusal of federal officials to explain in any detail how they calculated the 1-part-per-million figure the government and the water company are telling residents is safe.
For several days, the Gazette had asked to interview EPA officials who are assisting in all aspects of the agency's response -- from water sampling to cleanup to determining what level of the chemical is safe. The Gazette also has been unsuccessfully seeking interviews with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which helped devise the emergency chemical guidance.
Before Wednesday, the EPA had, like the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, declined to make any of its officials available for interviews.
Asked why, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson told the Gazette, "Our role right now is very limited. As we look at this, we are looking at where we have a role. Right now, that has not been determined."
Despite promises from President Obama that his would be a transparent administration, the Obama EPA has been criticized by groups -- including the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Union of Concerned Scientists -- for not being open with the news media, the public and the scientific community. Republican leaders in Congress have seized on the agency's closed-door policies in their efforts to clamp down on EPA regulatory efforts.
On Wednesday, EPA officials unveiled a website titled, "Charleston WV Chemical Leak" which lists its on-scene coordinators but provides few details about what the EPA is or isn't doing.
"All over its website, the EPA calls itself a public-health agency," said Celeste Monforton, a public health researcher with George Washington University. "A key tenet of public health is communicating openly with the public and being present to respond to public concern -- even when it doesn't have all the answers.
"[The] EPA's failure to do so damaged the public confidence that [the] EPA has the community's best interests in mind," Monforton said Wednesday.
Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.