Sometime early next month, crews at West Virginia American Water Co. will finish changing the filters at the company’s Elk River water treatment and distribution plant. If all goes as expected, follow-up sampling will show no signs of Crude MCHM, at least not at concentrations the current testing methods can detect.
Will that mean there’s no more of the coal-cleaning chemical in any of our drinking water? Not necessarily.
Experts say they believe chemicals caught in the treatment plant filter — and slowly leaching out until those filters are changed — could be the major source of any small amounts of MCHM remaining in the region’s drinking water nearly five months after the leak at Freedom Industries contaminated the supply that serves and estimated 300,000 residents,
However, some experts, including those hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to investigate the leak’s effects, remain concerned that MCHM and other chemicals from the leak could have been absorbed by home plumbing system materials, where they collected and also could be slowly re-entering home tap water. The only way to know for sure, the experts say, is to conduct more home testing.
In a May 16 report, the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project said “it is not known” how chemicals from the leak “might interact with the distribution system pipes and materials, as well as fixtures in the home.” Additional research on “chemical fate and transport” is needed, the report said.
“It would be advisable that some testing be carried out,” said Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer and one of WVTAP’s leaders.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said he believes that conducting additional home testing is crucial, not only to fully understand any remaining sources of MCHM in the region’s water, but also to restore public confidence in the water supply and in how public officials are responding to what has been called the “largest chemical drinking water contamination incident in U.S. history.”
“One of the most important things we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to document the complete dissipation of the chemicals from our drinking water system,” Gupta told a legislative committee last week.
“The filters are one issue, but it’s not just the filters. It’s trust,” Gupta said. “I can say that the water is ‘safe’, but how can I prove that if I don’t test?”
A survey by Gupta’s agency, taken in early April, showed that while more than 90 percent of Kanawha County residents were using public water again for various purposes like laundry, bathing or cooking, only a third of residents were drinking their tap water.
That’s despite the fact that all publicly available home water sampling data has shown levels of MCHM well below three screening levels recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tomblin’s administration and the WVTAP team. The most stringent of those screening levels was the 120-parts-per-billion level recommended by WVTAP. While state and federal officials have stood behind their screening level calculations, independent experts have continued to question the figures, saying there is not enough known about MCHM’s potential dangers to really set a “safe” level.
In the weeks after the leak, following the lifting of a “do not use” order issued by West Virginia American, state officials and the water company repeatedly touted what they said were “non-detect” results from testing samples of water from the treatment plant and from public locations in the distribution system, such as fire hydrants. However, when the data for more sensitive testing — with a detection limit as low as 2 parts per billion, instead of 10 parts per billion — was made public, it showed that MCHM was being detected in those same samples, although at lower levels than laboratories were able to accurately quantify as a certain concentration.
Also after the leak, West Virginia American President Jeff McIntrye said there was nothing wrong with the carbon pollution filters at his company’s treatment plant, and that West Virginia American was going to change those filters only because of a public “perception that they needed to be changed.”
Then, in March, the WVTAP team asked for samples of water from the intake and the outflow from the treatment plant. WVTAP sent those samples to the out-of-state lab it has been using. That testing, with an extremely low detection limit of 0.38 parts per bilion, found concentrations of MCHM of between 0.42 parts per billion and 0.60 parts per billion in water that had completed various levels of filtering and treatment at the plant.
When West Virginia American announced those results, McIntyre said, “It is not unexpected that MCHM effectively captured in filter material may show up in trace amounts in water leaving the plant.”
On May 9, West Virginia American announced that it was halfway through changing the plant’s nearly 500 tons of carbon filters. Tests of water samples from the new filters showed no MCHM, using a detection limit that would pick up anything down to 0.38 parts per billion, said company spokeswoman Laura Jordan.
WVTAP officials have said that changing the filters is a positive step, but the group’s reports also have continued to raise questions about whether the filters are the only remaining MCHM source affecting the region’s water.
In a May 5 report, WVTAP said the do-not-use order resulted in water “stagnating in place” and that “the consequences of this stagnation period and subsequent flushing of contaminated water through the infrastructure remain unknown. “It is possible MCHM adsorbed to or permeated into materials within the WVAW water distribution system and premise plumbing systems,” the report said. “Under this scenario, MCHM could gradually desorb into the drinking water over time and serve as an ongoing source of contamination.”
In a May 12 report, a panel of toxicologists brought together by WVTAP reported: “It is not known how the spilled chemicals interact with the environment, the water treatment plant, the distribution system, or the plumbing and fixtures in buildings and homes. The panel recommended that research be done to determine the chemical fate and transport of the spilled chemicals of major concern within the treatment plant and water
Whelton, the Alabama engineer, drove to West Virginia in January to test contaminated water and to help residents flush their home plumbing systems. Before he received a National Science Foundation grant for the research, and prior to being hired by Tomblin, Whelton was warning publicly that MCHM could be absorbed into home piping systems and discharged later into drinking water.
The last home testing by WVTAP was done in early February, and involved only 10 homes. WVTAP is completing a plan for a new and larger study, but there is no word yet from Tomblin or the state Department of Health and Human Resources about funding for that study.
Whelton said additional testing in homes — and in businesses and schools — is crucial, because “there remains a significant lack of water quality data from inside affected buildings.” MCHM levels are probably continuing to decline, Whelton said, but without testing there’s no way to know for sure.
“It’s highly likely that MCHM levels in affected homes are less than 10 parts per billion,” Whelton said. “MCHM levels will continue to reduce over time, and they will reach zero. How long that will take remains unknown.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.