W.Va. chemical tests improve, but water still untouchable

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four days after a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration and West Virginia American Water Company were once again unable to give a firm timeline for when water service would be restored to 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley.

A nine-county area of West Virginia, including the state's capital, Charleston, is still under a "state of emergency," with tap water not to be used for anything but flushing toilets, but test results "are trending in the right direction," Mr. Tomblin said at a news conference Sunday night.

"I believe that we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, said he no longer believes they are "several days" from starting to lift the "do not use" order, but that the ban would not be lifted Sunday.

The leak affects the water system in parts of nine counties. All schools will be closed today in four of those counties: Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Putnam. Select schools will be closed in Cabell and Clay counties.

State superintendent Jim Phares said that he would be sending instructions to county superintendents on how to flush their water systems and clean any equipment and appliances that were in contact with contaminated water. He said county personnel would begin that process today.

All government offices and the Legislature will be open today, Mr. Tomblin said.

State officials said test results are improving, but the water system still needs significant flushing.

Army Maj. Gen. James Hoyer said National Guard teams directing the sampling of water at the treatment plant met their goal of not seeing any results with chemical concentrations of more than 1 part per million of the leaked chemical -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as "Crude MCHM" -- for 24 hours.

"The interagency team agrees that this allows us to move forward to the next phases of sampling and testing throughout the system to provide the appropriate confirmation regarding the integrity of the system," Gen. Hoyer said.

Once those tests are completed and show consistent results, workers will begin the process of flushing out distribution systems before residents are instructed to clean out their home systems.

State officials have said that a federal team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry came up with the 1-part-per-million figure as a safe level, in the absence of any drinking water standards or health-based standards for the chemical.

But there is little health data available for the material, and government officials have declined to provide much detail about how they calculated the 1-part-per-million number.

Asked for more details Sunday, West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources secretary, Karen Bowling, said only, "We felt very confident in the federal system."

The emergency began Thursday after a foaming agent used in coal processing escaped from a Freedom Industries plant in Charleston and seeped into the Elk River.

Asked why officials didn't know Crude MCHM was stored so close to the region's water intake, the West Virginia director of Homeland Security, Jimmy Gianato, said it was a matter of the material being stored there that kept Freedom Industries off their radar. The company filed its "Tier 2" forms with the state and county last February, making them aware of what it stored and how much was kept there.

"The chemical that is involved here is not listed as an extremely hazardous or toxic substance, so it's not subject to a lot of the regulatory requirements that other products are," Mr. Gianato said.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn't regularly inspect those tanks, because the facility is used for storage, not processing, according to Secretary Randy Huffman.

"It's not a process facility," Mr. Huffmansaid. "[Freedom Industries] simply brought the materials in and they stored them in the tanks, then they shipped them out. There are no processes, no water discharges. There are no air discharges, so there is not a water permit at this time."

Ten people have been hospitalized in the area with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, Ms. Bowling said.

The chemical leaked out of a 1-inch opening in a 35,000-gallon tank. A retaining wall surrounding the tank, supposed to serve as a fail-safe, had been scheduled for $1 million in repairs.

The company didn't report the chemical spill until nearly an hour after DEP officials were already on site, and nearly four hours after citizens began complaining about the licorice odor that the leak caused. Mr. Huffman said the company has been cooperative in remediation efforts along the river.

Tanks that held Crude MCHM at the facility are being cleaned and will soon be cut apart, DEP official Mike Dorsey said. Booms will remain in the river to catch the chemical as it leaches from soil.

Associated Press contributed.


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