Filters at the West Virginia American Water Co. plant may be leaching small amounts of chemicals associated with the Freedom Industries chemical leak back into the local water supply.
West Virginia American Water Co. released testing results Tuesday afternoon that show very small amounts of crude MCHM are in water taken from the Elk River after it goes through the company’s filtration system.
“It is not unexpected that MCHM effectively captured in the filter material may show up in trace amounts in water leaving the plant,” company President Jeff McIntyre said in a news release.
Residents, lawmakers and others have questioned whether the filters needed to be changed after they were overwhelmed Jan. 9 by thousands of gallons of chemicals leaking from a faulty storage tank just upstream from the plant.
Both McIntyre and other water company officials have said they are confident the filters do not need to be changed.
“The filters are not compromised,” McIntyre told a state legislative committee in early February.
“With the perception that they are compromised, I’ve already agreed to change all 16 filter caps.”
On March 12, company spokeswoman Laura Jordan told the Daily Mail the company “is not aware of any possible detrimental effects on our treatment processes related to carbon filters or otherwise.”
Tuesday’s announcement doesn’t shift from previous company statements, and the test results don’t indicate a problem with the filters.
“This is not something that we see as any type of compromise. We maintain our statements previously that the filters are effectively capturing these materials,” Jordan said.
The water company’s results, based on water samples taken Friday night and Saturday morning, show at least six samples of water with more crude MCHM after filtration than before.
The amounts range from 0.423 parts per billion and 0.6 parts per billion. All of the results with any level of MCHM come from water that passed filtration. Most of the finished water samples taken at the same times also show detectable levels of the chemical.
In a footnote, the water company statement says the actual concentration level should be considered an estimate. Jordan emphasized this point, noting it was due to the small levels of the chemicals in the water.
“Today’s results just indicate that MCHM can just be detected down to a lower level,” Jordan said.
The reported amounts are significantly less than the 1 part per million (1,000 parts per billion) amount below which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes water with crude MCHM can safely be consumed.
West Virginia American Water also acknowledges conducting the testing after receiving results of a recently completed in-home test by the state Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP.
The group of scientists hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Tuesday morning trace amounts of the chemical were detected in tap water at a home near the water treatment facility.
“Test results did reveal that 4-MCHM was present in one of the homes of the first customers at a level less than 1.0 ppb, but greater than 0.5 ppb,” a WV TAP news release states.
“This finding implied that there could be a source of 4-MCHM in the water treatment facility.”
Professor Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer and co-project leader, said the team asked the state to conduct tests because it found materials other than MCHM in the water.
The results confirm the team’s beliefs that the treatment facility may have been sending out water that still contained some amount of the chemical, Whelton said. He also thinks there has been some confusion that a “non-detect” reading means there’s no chemical in the water.
There’s no such thing as an absolute zero in the water business, Jordan said Tuesday. On Jan. 17, she told the Daily Mail a non-detect doesn’t mean an “infinitesimal” amount of the chemical isn’t still in the water.
At the reported amounts though, Whelton said he didn’t think the water posed an immediate threat.”
“I’m not overly concerned about the results that they released,” Whelton said.
“What the concern is, is how long is that going to occur for?”
Whelton’s team plans to release findings pertaining to other compounds in the water Friday. Nothing of concern “jumped out at” the team, Whelton said.
There are also still concerns about what specific levels of the chemical could be harmful if inhaled, or whether the chemical sticks to pipes, Whelton said. Jordan said Tuesday there’s no evidence to indicate the chemical sticks to pipes, reiterating previous company statements.
McIntyre and Jordan have repeatedly said the company will change the filters, but the process can’t happen right away. It depends on production volumes, weather, water flow rates and when the company hired to change the filters is available, she said.
The water company has said these factors make it difficult to predict when the changing process could begin. In Tuesday’s release, McIntyre said changing is expected to begin next week.
There are 16 filters that contain 500 tons of granular active carbon. Each filter takes several days to change. Each filter is typically changed once every four years on a rolling basis, so that four of the plant’s 16 filters are new every year.
In early February, McIntyre said it could be months before every filter is changed.
A spokeswoman for Tomblin did not return a request for comment.
Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, downplayed the significance of the lingering amount of MCHM in the water company’s test results.
“It is critical to remember that all of these results indicate a safety level that is at least 2,000 (times) more protective than the CDC guidance, and at least 55 times more protective than even what the National Resources Defense Fund has suggested,” Messina said in an email.
“These amounts are incredibly, utterly minuscule,” he said.
He also noted that the water company has affirmed its intent to begin changing its filters next week.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.