A contractor waded waist-deep through one of 16 activated carbon filters at West Virginia American Water’s Charleston treatment plant Tuesday, vacuuming up the carbon with a large hose as local and national media members attentively watched and recorded his every move.
The replacement of a filter has likely happened hundreds of times since the treatment facility along the Elk River opened in December 1973 with rare notice or thought by anyone outside the chilly, industrial filter room. But the work Tuesday -- the man crawling around in a concrete pit sucking up 52,000 pounds of the black, granular substance with a vacuum hose -- marked the beginning of what the water company hopes will be the end of a water contamination crisis that has marred the public’s trust in the company’s tap water.
“Within days of the Freedom Industries chemical spill, we committed to our customers and have continued to commit to our customers that we would be changing out the carbon caps in the filters just as soon as soon as flows allowed it to,” water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said. “We let customers know during that time that flow rates during the cold winter months are at their highest. It does not allow us to take any of the filters out of service for changing during those months. This is the first time we were able to start that.”
Jordan said contractors from Pittsburgh-based Calgon Carbon will replace two filters per week, and the entire project is expected to take eight weeks. She said the project will cost West Virginia American Water more than $1.1 million.
The Elk River water treatment facility was overwhelmed on Jan. 9, hours after state officials discovered thousands of gallons of crude MCHM and other chemicals leaking from a faulty storage tank at Freedom Industries into the river. The contaminant seeped through the carbon filters and into the company’s 1,500-mile water distribution, which serves 300,000 people in nine counties -- more than 15 percent of West Virginia’s population. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre issued a Do Not Use order on the evening of Jan. 9 that lasted as long as nine days in some affected communities.
Jordan said the filters are typically changed out on a four-year rotating cycle, but water company executives pledged to change all the filters shortly after the spill. They insisted the filters were not compromised in any way and that the replacements were to help “public perception.”
Water samples taken at the treatment plant recently show less than one part per billion of MCHM in treated water, but no traces of MCHM in water before treatment, indicating that MCHM may be leaching from the activated carbon filters. Both McIntyre and Jordan have repeatedly said the low levels of MCHM pose no danger to human health, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s one part per million screening level for MCHM set the day after the spill. Jordan said the recently-released MCHM samples were estimates because the levels of MCHM were so low.
“This is a continuation of our commitment to our customers -- not for any health reasons,” Jordan said. “As we know, water leaving the water treatment plant, now laboratories can detect down to that half of a part per billion level. This makes no difference in our minds.”
Jordan added that she is not aware of any additional recommendations for replacing in-home water filters beyond what was provided in the flushing instructions in January.
Charleston mayor Danny Jones applauded the water company’s move Tuesday. Jones said in a statement that the replacement of the water filters was a “crucial step” for those still not trusting their tap water.
“I’ve heard from several people that the continuing use of these water filters, which were contaminated by the chemical leak on Jan. 9, added to their concerns about the quality of the water moving through the plant ever since,” Jones said.
“My hope is that the end result of this entire frustrating situation will be greater protection of our water to the point where we have the safest and cleanest water anywhere. The water company’s replacement program moves us in that direction, starting today.”
Jordan said all 16 filters will be replaced in the next several weeks with “virgin carbon” -- carbon which has never been used before.
“The schedule this week is to empty one filter today, one filter tomorrow, then replace the carbon in the first filter by Thursday and replace it in the second filter by Friday, and then those filter will be put back into service,” Jordan said. “Next week, we’ll start the process all over again with another two (filters).”
Jordan added that each filter will be sanitized and tests will be conducted before each filter is put back online.
“We will be continuing to test for MCHM throughout this whole process as we are still doing here at the treatment plant,” Jordan said. “We will also be testing post-full-filter-replacement and will be providing that information to our customers.”
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.