Home testing a start, but questions remain
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to test a sample of homes for the toxic chemical Crude MCHM is a start, but the investigation needs to be carefully planned so it will answer important questions about long-term impacts of the Elk River leak, according to independent experts who are already studying the region's water crisis.
"Science needs to drive the train," said Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer who received an emergency National Science Foundation grant to support his work.
Whelton and a team of researchers drove to Charleston after the Jan. 9 leak and did some sampling of home tap water and helped some residents flush their plumbing systems.
Since then, Whelton has offered to assist the state in a broader examination of the issue but has not yet been brought in by Tomblin or other state and federal officials.
Whelton cautioned, though, that the state can't do the work in secret and must educate the public about how the study would work, why it's being done that way, and what sorts of helpful information the effort will provide.
"You've got to sell it to the public, whatever is done," Whelton said. "If officials just do it on their own, and don't engage the public, the value of the information obtained might not have buy-in from the public."
Tomblin's office offered no new information Thursday on their progress in developing the testing plan, except to say that the state was considering bringing in outside experts to assist.
On Wednesday, after first brushing off the idea during a high-profile news conference, the governor later directed his spill-response team to come up with a plan for testing the water in a representative sample of the 100,000 homes and businesses impacted by the leak.
State and federal officials have said residents can resume using water from West Virginia American Water's regional system, citing test results showing levels of Crude MCHM were below a controversial 1 part-per-million "screening level" set by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
But government officials have done no testing inside people's homes, and tests at local schools have been only of chemical levels in the water -- not of levels in the air, despite complaints about inhalation impacts and a lack of data on the inhalation toxicity of the material.
At the same time, questions continue about the extent of water system testing that will continue to be done over the long-term by either the state of West Virginia American Water.
During his Wednesday news conference, Tomblin said, "I have asked West Virginia American Water to continue testing throughout its distribution system.
"This additional testing and the conclusions will continue to be posted online," the governor said. "We recognize that transparency promotes confidence."
Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard said his teams would discontinue their testing of water from hydrants around the distribution system once the last of 24 water company "zones" shows levels below the state's detection level of 10 parts per billion.
And Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, said once that system-wide "non-detect" is achieved, her company would then announce what testing "if any" of the system beyond its treatment plant would be conducted.
Sen. President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said Thursday the state will have to ensure more testing and different kinds of testing to regain the public's trust.
"We need to know facts," Kessler said. "We need to test the air and the water."
Kessler added that residents need answers about how long their water is going to smell like black-licorice candy.
"I wouldn't want to drink licorice-smelling water forever," Kessler said. "We need to know if this is temporary or permanent."
In recent days, West Virginia residents increasingly have been asking why the state Department of Health and Human Resources or the National Guard are testing water for MCHM only at the water treatment plant, at fire hydrants and in some public buildings, such as schools.
Outside experts have expressed concern that the MCHM and other chemicals from the leak could have been absorbed by home plumbing systems, where it could continue to leach into water -- even if in very small amounts -- for some undetermined amount of time. Whelton compares the pipes to a sponge, in which the chemicals would be quickly absorbed, but perhaps not so quickly expelled over time.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday they have a study that disputes this theory, but they have not released a copy of the study. EPA regional drinking-water chief Bill Arguto suggested a reporter could get a copy from West Virginia American Water. The water company has not responded to a request for the study.
A West Virginia University scientist who also received a National Science Foundation grant to study the Elk River leak said Thursday she agrees with Whelton that it's not clear yet how the leak impacted home piping and tanks.
"We do not know how these chemicals will interact with different plumbing materials," said Jennifer Weidhaas, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Before the governor's change of position Wednesday, Tomblin administration officials had rejected the idea of testing homes by saying there was no way they could possibly test all potentially impacted homes.
"There's not a hesitancy to do it, but there's a cost to it," Tomblin said Wednesday. "Trying to test a hundred thousand customers could be in the tens of millions of dollars."
During a breakfast with representatives of the West Virginia Press Association, Kessler suggested Thursday the state could test three or four homes in each of West Virginia American Water's 24 distribution districts. By one estimate of $675 per test, Kessler said, that would cost the state only about $65,000.
"If we would go out and do that and they would come back clean, it would go a long way toward restoring the public's faith in the water system," Kessler said.
Asked how reliable testing fewer than 100 homes would be scientifically, Kessler conceded that he is not an expert and said the state needs to find experts who can help design an appropriate and properly sized study.
"I'm not the expert in the subject area, but I think it would be a start to do something," Kessler said. "I don't know what that study sample needs to be. If we had to do 2,000 to make it statistically sound, then so be it. We need facts."
Dr. Tanja Popovic, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health, said any decision to test homes must be made carefully.
"That decision needs to be made with a little bit more thinking and deciding what kind of data we're going to have, what validity we're going to have," Popovic said. "One of the things we all have to do is be very honest about what we do know, what we do not know, and not promise to do things where expectations or outcomes or results are just so that we don't know whether we can do it.
Popovic added, "Conducting studies without having the knowledge that there will be a statistical power, that there will be an ability to make a conclusion, is not advisable."
Whelton said he has hesitated to estimate how large of a study is needed or how many homes should be sampled. State officials need to consult with outside experts, Whelton said, to figure out exactly what they hope the study will find out, and then design the study to meet those goals.
For example, he said, the study needs to make note of the types of pipes in each house, and when the plumbing was flushed, so that experts can draw conclusions about how the chemicals interacted with plumbing systems and how flushing impacted the chemical's presence in homes.
"I really don't think you need to test thousands of homes," Whelton said. "You're probably looking at hundreds. It can be done."
Whelton added, "The approach the governor is now moving toward is excellent. It's a step in the right direction. The next step is to figure out the breadth and depth of this examination."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.