CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The head of West Virginia American Water Co. assured reporters Monday that tap water is safe to drink.
Jeff McIntyre, water company president, drank water from taps at the company's headquarters and also from a bottle of water a WCHS-TV reporter brought from the Charleston newsroom.
"My wife and I live in the area and we're affected," McIntyre said. "I've been drinking the water for several days at the command center and at the water treatment plant."
But he said the Jan. 9 chemical spill at Freedom Industries and the subsequent water outages have had a drastic effect on the water company and that the utility knows it will have to work hard to restore public trust.
"I think this event from Freedom Industries has shaken us to the core," he said Monday.
He said he understands customers' frustration.
"I think trust takes time to build back up and we're committed to regaining the trust of our customers," he said. "We provide a quality product at a very good price, but trust is one of those things that takes time to recover ... we're not going to stop until we recover that trust."
McIntyre said testing of water throughout the distribution system would continue until levels of Crude MCHM in the water supply are not detectable.
The level which is considered "non-detect" is 10 parts per billion, which water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan is the lowest amount laboratories have the capability to detect.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control provided a guideline of 1 part per million that it doesn't believe would cause adverse health effects. The CDC later said pregnant women should avoid drinking tap water until no detectable levels of MCHM are present system-wide.
McIntyre said West Virginia American Water is not overseeing the continued testing. While water company employees assist in taking samples of water, the National Guard has taken custody of the samples and is in charge of subsequent testing.
"We haven't provided the test results," he said. "That's been through the interagency team, and actually the National Guard is controlling the sample flow, so when they're brought back in, they're dealing with the chain of custody ... it's really about leveraging our resources with the National Guard."
McIntyre also said as of Monday, tests throughout the entire water system have been below the 1 part per million recommendation and continue to go lower.
"We are seeing non-detects as we radiate through the system out from the plant," he said.
Earlier Monday, the Charleston Gazette reported a different federal agency, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, suggested water be flushed from homes until no odor could be detected.
McIntyre said the water company wasn't "aware of that until it was written in the paper."
"Really, it's not the best recommendation," he said. "This is an aesthetic issue below 1 part per million. It's not a health-based issue"
McIntyre said continuous flushing could damage the water system and thwart the water company's efforts. He pointed to several cases of water customers not following the company's guidelines, which can quickly deplete water in the system.
"We had one nursing home that opened four fire hydrants and drained a tank," he said. "We had one customer who turned on their water and left and went out of state."
McIntyre addressed concerns about water filtration at the chemical plant. He said to his understanding from the state Department of Environmental Protection, no more crude MCHM has been seeping into the Elk River from the Freedom Industries facility.
"Our filters are activated carbon caps ... and they can't be changed right now," he said. "We need to get down to reduced flow levels before we can change them. It's a two to three day physical process."
McIntyre said until the filters can be changed, they are backwashed and are being supplemented with "powder-activated carbon" at the plant's intake.
"We're ensuring we still have that same treatment capacity," he said.
The company is also speeding up its required annual "full spectrum analysis," which was originally scheduled for February.
McIntyre said the water company would analyze its response to the chemical leak and look for ways to improve. He also said the company has obtained legal counsel and is discussing any legal action that may need to be taken.
"You have to remember, this is a chemical spill we're reacting to," he said. "It's not something that we caused. It's not something we knew a lot about."