West Virginia chemical spill: end of water ban in sight, but questions linger

West Virginia officials see 'a light at the end of the tunnel' in the five-day water crisis that barred 300,000 residents from using tap water for anything but flushing following a chemical spill.

Michael Switzer/AP Photo
Bonnie Wireman of Dry Branch, W.Va., has covered her kitchen faucets in a bag because she kept forgetting about the ban on using tap water for drinking and washing. Ms. Wireman is one of thousands of area residents affected by the water ban following the chemical spill on Jan. 9.

Officials in West Virginia say that an end may be in sight to the water ban that has left 300,000 West Virginians without drinking, cleaning, and cooking water for five days.

“We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) told reporters Sunday.

The West Virginia American Water Co. continued testing local drinking water throughout the weekend for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical compound used to clean coal, which seeped from a holding tank at Freedom Industries into the Elk River on Thursday, contaminating local drinking water.

Officials have been waiting for concentrations to dissipate below 1 part per million before allowing residents to resume using the water for anything other than flushing. While weekend testing indicated that the concentration in four testing locations has dropped to a safe level, officials plan to continue testing throughout the distribution area Monday before giving residents the all clear.

The utility is expected to lift the ban gradually and will notify residents directly as the status for their zone changes. A website will be set up to help residents determine what zone they live in.

Residents will be instructed to flush potentially contaminated water from their pipes, hot water tanks, and the icemakers in their refrigerators.

“What we are trying to stress is that, as the plan unfolds, it is very important for people to adhere to that plan,” says Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

“Unless the utility explicitly told them directly to start a procedure of flushing their household, they are not to proceed until they get those instructions,” Mr. Messina says. “It is very important that people do not jump the gun so this process can go as smoothly as practically possible.”

The incident first came to light on Thursday morning when residents alerted authorities that their tap water had an unusual, licorice-like smell. The contaminant was traced to a leaky 40,000-gallon holding tank maintained by Freedom Industries, which stores and supplies chemicals to the local coal industry. As much as 7,500 gallons of the substance is believed to have leaked from the tank, breached a secondary containment area, and entered the Elk River upstream from the local water treatment facility.

Questions have emerged about just how long the company may have been aware of the leak.

"There's no question that they should have called earlier," said West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman.

Because the facility does not produce or manufacture chemicals, it does not fall under regulation by the State Department of Environmental Protection.

“At this time, we do not know of any entity, state or federal, that would regulate this facility,” Messina says.

“We will continue, as we get people back on their feet, to investigate what happened, when it happened, and what we need to do to do the job better,” Governor Tomblin told reporters.

The compound is not considered toxic enough to be designated a hazardous material for transportation purposes.

While the chemical is not deadly to humans, even at full concentration, little is known about potential smaller, chronic health effects associated with exposure.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA) of 1976 grants the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to regulate and require testing of toxic chemicals, but the majority of new compounds make it to market without rigorous testing, says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Andy Igrejas, the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy coalition in Washington, sees this incident as an illustration of EPA's impotence under TSCA. "If we had a functioning system, then we would know a lot more about the chemical" and would have a plan in place in case of rupture and release into the environment, he says.

The Department of Health and Human Resources advised residents that may have come into contact with contaminated water and are suffering from symptoms to contact local poison control. So far, 10 people have been admitted to area hospitals, but none are considered to be in serious condition, said West Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling.

While it will likely be a while before the area returns to normal, some businesses, including restaurants, in the area have been able to open conditionally.

“While we await word from West Virginia American Water Co. about when to proceed, the National Guard continues to bring in water to these counties,” Messina says. “We believe that retailers have been able to keep stock of water and other items. The situation is as good as can be expected.”

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