West Virginia officials should reconsider the cleanup goals they set when they devised a program to flush chemicals from January’s Elk River spill out of their home plumbing system and the region’s drinking water distribution operation, according to a new report from an expert team hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
The West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP, said Wednesday that state government’s goal — reducing levels of the chemical MCHM to less than 10 parts per billion — did not resolve concerns from the public about chemical contamination of the drinking water supply serving 300,000 residents in a nine-county area.
“Despite attainment of this goal, the presence of 4-MCHM at resident taps was objectionable to residents and negatively impacted public perception about their drinking water and their water utility,” WVTAP said. “Those factors should be considered in a reassessment of the cleanup goals for this spill.”
The recommendation is contained in one of two new reports made public Wednesday morning by officials from WVTAP, a team of engineers and other experts hired by Tomblin in February to respond to growing citizen complaints about the state’s handling of the spill at Freedom Industries and the water crisis that followed.
Many of the findings in the two reports were summarized previously during public meetings held by WVTAP in late March and early April. But the reports contain some new details, as well as some additional conclusions and recommendations.
In their 12-page report on its 10-home study of water chemistry and plumbing systems, WVTAP experts noted that their contract laboratory — using a more sensitive method and different disclosure policy than labs previous hired by the state — detected MCHM in 105 of the 120 samples analyzed from 10 homes in eight of the counties impacted by the spill.
WVTAP said that its sampling, done in mid-February, showed a need for officials to determine the source of “ongoing loading” of MCHM to the water distribution “to predict the assets affected and decontamination actions needed.” The report said that chemicals could be coming from “plumbing systems, the [West Virginia American Water] distribution system, or both.”
In late March, the water company revealed — again based on more rigorous sampling analysis encouraged by WVTAP — that very small levels of MCHM were leaching from the pollution filters at its Elk River treatment plant. West Virginia American is about halfway done replacing the 16 filters at the facility and should have that work done by early June, said company spokeswoman Laura Jordan.
WVTAP said that it’s possible that MCHM also absorbed or permeated into materials within the water distribution system and local plumbing systems. “Under this scenario, sequestered MCHM could gradually desorb into the drinking water over time and serve as an ongoing source of contamination,” the WVTAP report said.
WVTAP leaders Andrew Whelton and Jeffrey Rosen have proposed more studies to get at a variety of questions that linger following the spill, but say that they have not heard back from the Tomblin administration about those proposals.
Shayna Varner, deputy press secretary for Tomblin, said the state is waiting on all of WVTAP’s final reports and for a formal proposal for a larger in-home study before making any decisions. “We look forward to reviewing the group’s findings and plan for future testing and analysis,” Varner said in an email.
While state and federal officials have consistently downplayed the public health impacts of the spill, a report released in late April by the state Bureau for Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Cotnrol found that hundreds of residents who sought emergency-room care in January were treated for symptoms that were consistent with MCHM exposure.
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Rahul Gupta is continuing to analyze data from his agency’s survey of residents, and is expected to announce at a Thursday press conference a collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Charleston for that work. Gupta said he is also working with Harvard on a study of data Harvard collected separately about the spill’s impacts.
So far, the health department’s work has found that about one third of the residents surveyed reported experiencing some adverse health symptoms they attributed to chemical spill exposure, Gupta said.
At Thursday’s press conference, Gupta is expected to announce the agenda for a more detailed release of survey findings scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday at U.C.’s Riggleman Hall.
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