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Officials: Little known about spill recovery timeline

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Water company officials still do not know how long it's going to take remove an unknown amount of a hazardous chemical that contaminated water for potentially 300,000 people.

West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said the company is still learning about the chemical and how to remove it from the 1,500 miles of pipeline that could be affected.

The do-not-use order is the largest that West Virginia American Water has ever issued, McIntyre said. 

"We haven't had a situation like this where we've had a 'do-not-use' (advisory) of this magnitude," McIntyre said. 

He stressed the company is not positive the water is dangerous, but they determined there's the possibility. The substance doesn't have a "high lethality," but they didn't want to take any chances, he said.

McIntyre explained the company has a filtration process that is able to clean their water, taken from the Elk River for a large treatment center. The process is extensive but does not address this particular chemical, known as crude MCHM.

The company was notified by local emergency services personnel about the leak about noon Thursday, McIntyre said. They knew about the leak all afternoon, but felt confident their filtration process was doing a sufficient job of cleaning the water, he said.

At about 4 p.m., McIntyre said the company determined the chemical had "overwhelmed" the plant's capacity to keep it out of the water. He said they made that decision after they were able to smell a black licorice odor on water that had already passed through the system.

He acknowledged the company may not have been able to detect the chemical without the overwhelming odor, and they know very little about its properties. He said he spoke with a toxicologist who said some test results in rats led the expert to believe it would take consuming a "considerable" amount of the substance to have a negative affect on a person.

Those tests are on a small scale and there haven't been many, he said. He also didn't quantify "considerable."

The chemical isn't one that typically spills in water, McIntyre said. Because of this, the company doesn't know how much of can be safely be in the water or how to get rid of it.

At no point during this process has West Virginia American Water had substantive communication with Freedom Industries, the company that owns storage unit and chemical that leaked. McIntyre said he hadn't spoken with anyone from the company.

Local officials were familiar with the substance in general because other local facilities also store it in the area, said Kanawha County emergency services official C. W. Sigman said. That doesn't mean they have a clear plan as to how to get the chemical out of the water.

"If had just spilled onto the ground and not gotten into the water, it would have been a non-event," Sigman said.

Latest estimates showed there were 3 parts per million of the chemical in the water, Sigman said. He emphasized the county doesn't know how much is safe to drink, but they determined the current concentration was too high.

He stressed the odd behavior he viewed at the scene of Freedom Industries when he arrived shortly after learning of the leak. Where other companies might require routine safety measures on site, like hardhats, Signman said people were walking around like nothing was wrong.

He arrived with the Department of Environmental Protection. The company wasn't helpful; the agencies had to find the source of the leak.

They eventually determined the chemical had seeped through a secondary containment barrier and was running into the river. The secondary containment barrier is an old, block wall, Sigman said. Seams in between the block are obvious from a picture of the site Sigman had on his cellphone.

"If it was my house foundation I'd be worried about it," Sigman said.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a Cease Operations Order to Freedom Industries, saying that the company can no longer receive materials to be stored within the secondary containment.

The company also has been ordered to take "all necessary measures to contain, recover and remediate the material that has escaped the facility.  The facility is ordered to immediately conduct an integrity test of all the above ground storage tanks and secondary containment structures for the entire facility."

Prior to resuming operations, the company must provide a report for approval with documents that prove the integrity of their storage structures. 

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper urged residents to use common sense and not panic.

McIntyre said the company was not planning another press conference at this time.

 


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