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Water situation improving

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The concentration of chemicals contaminating water in the Elk River seems to be dissipating, but the facility from which the chemical leaked may not be subject to reporting requirements as mandated by state law.

Michael Dorsey, chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Response under the state Department of Environmental Protection, said tests conducted on water samples taken overnight show the concentration of chemicals has decreased from 2 parts per million to 1.7 parts per million. That's still above 1 part per million the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds acceptable.

"We'll have some additional samples coming forward here soon to be able to see," Dorsey said during a Friday news conference. "What was done last night was samples were taken each hour, which gives us the opportunity to go back and look by hour to see how this was moving through the system. Based on those first two sample tests, it does appear to becoming more soluble."

West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer said testing protocols were put in place Thursday night to begin testing the contaminated water. The National Guard is using its own lab, plus a lab from DuPont and another from the Department of Health and Human Resources. He's also requested two additional labs to help speed the testing process.

"We'll have plenty of lab services to speed our process along," Hoyer said.

Dorsey said the chemical is "moderately soluble," meaning a person can see the chemical enter the water, but it quickly dilutes. He also said he's not sure what happens when the chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, combines with other chemicals used in the water treatment process.

The worst case scenario, Dorsey said, is that 5,000 gallons of the chemical leaked into the Elk River, the source for West Virginia American Water.

However, not all 5,000 gallons would have made it to the pumping station and out to the thousands of water customers in the affected nine-county area. The tank from which the chemical leaked holds 40,000 gallons.

"That's definitely not how much made it into the river," Dorsey said. "Quite a bit was caught in secondary containment. We don't know how much leaked through and a lot of that has gotten through ... we don't have a good picture of how much is in there still. But that much did not make it to the river."

Dorsey said the incident is not a catastrophic failure because neither the tank or containment failed. There was a leak in the tank and in secondary containment, but most of the material remained inside.

"So there were failures, but not catastrophic failures," Dorsey said.

As far as the reporting requirement, Dorsey said the DEP is looking into whether the Freedom Industries must comply with that law.

"The water resources regulations require they do (report), but it does not give a specified time period. They reported at 12:05 p.m. yesterday," Dorsey said.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the Legislature passed reporting requirements after some coal mining incidents, but those requirements also apply to other industries. When asked if he anticipates the Legislature taking action on the spill, he said the current laws may be applicable.

"I'll look at the current laws and see what happened here," Kessler said. "The law that's on the books may be perfectly adequate. It may be an instance where they may or may not have been in compliance with it. It's a bit premature to know exactly what happened. If there are things of this nature that have the ability to disrupt an entire region and economy and health and safety, it needs to be immediately reported."

Kessler said the reporting guidelines in the law, Senate Bill 279, require emergencies to be reported to appropriate agencies within 15 minutes.

On the House side, Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he would refrain from suggesting how the Legislature should respond until all facts are known.

"I don't like being reactionary when we're talking about creating laws," he said. "I am not one who wants to react quickly to an incident without being fully apprised on what caused this to happen in the first place. I want to refrain from suggesting what we ought to do. Sometimes things happen that are unexpected, their addressed and rectified without need for legislative action. Conversely, sometimes unanticipated things happen that are unexpected, they're addressed, they're resolved and you realize we need to address this through legislative action and create rules for people to follow so the incident doesn't repeat itself."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reminded customers in the affected area to stay calm and to abide by West Virginia American Water's do-not-use ban. He said all appropriate resources are available, including experts from DHHR, the DEP and National Guard. A state of emergency is in effect, and President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration, which allows for federal assistance.

But only time will tell how long the ban will last.

"At this time, I do not know how long the order will last," Tomblin said. "We ask all West Virginians to check on their friends, families and neighbors, especially those with small children living in their households, make sure they have enough water, food and supplies."

Tomblin announced a donation drive to help those without water. The drive will run until 6:30 p.m. today, and items such as bottled water, baby wipes, plastic utensils and microwavable food will be accepted.

 


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