The main chemical involved in January’s leak into the Elk River showed “some, but limited, permeation” with home plumbing system materials, university researchers said this week in an important finding for Kanawha Valley residents still concerned that their tap water could be contaminated five months after the incident.
Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at the University of South Alabama, said the finding was encouraging, given concerns that water contaminated by the chemical MCHM may have adhered to plumbing system materials during the “do not use” order West Virginia American Water issued following the Jan. 9 leak at Freedom Industries and could be continuing to seep into drinking water.
“Our plastic pipe results are promising, considering the four- to 10-day mandatory tap water stagnation period ordered by the utility,” Whelton said. “More research needs to be conducted to provide a more definitive picture.”
In January, Whelton came to West Virginia after the Freedom Industries leak with a university team that tested water and helped some residents with the flushing of their home plumbing systems.
Soon after that, he received an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation for more research on the leak’s impacts. And then, under pressure from residents outraged by the state’s response to the leak, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin hired Whelton as part of a new team, the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, to further explore the incident’s effects.
Among Whelton’s early concerns were that the flushing guidance from the water company and the state wasn’t adequate either to protect residents from the chemicals or to clear home plumbing systems of any contamination.
Subsequent research has found that residents reported an increase in health problems that appeared related to skin exposure or chemical inhalation following the flushing of their plumbing systems. During a meeting in March, Whelton reported that his university research had found that the flushing process had “mixed effectiveness” in removing chemicals from home piping and tanks. Federal officials had encouraged the state government to advise residents to flush their plumbing systems until they no longer smelled the licorice odor of MCHM, but the state declined to follow that federal recommendation.
This week, Whelton presented more findings of his university and NSF research at the American Water Works Association annual conference in Boston. His university later issued a news release about the presentation.
Whelton explained that during their work in West Virginia, his team found that several homes contained cross-linked polyethylene water pipes in addition to other plastic and metal pipes.
“Cross-linked polyethylene pipes, which can be found in any local building supply store, are increasingly being used in U.S. residential and commercial plumbing systems,” Whelton said. “This material is nearly six times less expensive compared to traditional copper piping.
“While plastic pipes have certain benefits, there is a lack of information involving their interaction with chemicals,” Whelton said. “The West Virginia incident demonstrated what happens when organizations involved in the response and recovery do not have data to predict chemical fate in plumbing systems.”
At the Boston meeting, Whelton’s team reported that flushing reduced MCHM levels by 80 percent to 100 percent in two homes they tested, while MCHM levels were relatively unchanged in a third home. Whelton said it was unclear why flushing “did not effectively reduce MCHM levels” in the third home, but proposed that the chemical could have been present in the utility’s main lines at elevated levels, affecting the home test results.
The research also suggested that crude MCHM’s main ingredient, 4-MCHM, “had some, but limited, permeation” with cross-linked polyethylene pipe.”
“This finding is important because tap water was stagnated during a ban on water use,” the news release said. “Some residents refused to flush their plumbing systems for more than 30 days.”
Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, questioned Whelton’s description of water in homes and the distribution system as having been stagnant during the “do not use” period.
“It should also be noted that even when the ‘Do Not Use’ order was in effect, sanitation was maintained and toilet flushing was not prevented, which kept water moving through pipes in the distribution system and homes,” Jordan said.
In its reports, the WVTAP team has said that one source of MCHM to local tap water will be eliminated once West Virginia American Water completes the changing of the 16 filter systems at its Elk River treatment and distribution plant. Jordan said that the last two filters were changed last week, and West Virginia American is waiting now for final test results before declaring the project complete.
WVTAP has also recommended, though, that additional home testing of tap water be done to find out if there are other MCHM sources left. The Tomblin administration has not said if it will fund that additional testing.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.