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Officials at odds over safety of water

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Is the water supply safe?

Answers from local, state and national health officials continue to vary.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, appeared Wednesday morning before a joint legislative committee investigating the Elk River chemical spill.

Later in the day, Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke at a press conference.

See more coverage of WV water crisis  

Gupta's information goes against what Tierney and Popovic said. Tierney and Popovic also at times differed.

After the press conference, Tierney reiterated her position that she has provided as much accurate information as she can when it becomes available.

"If I had gone into that room, on the first day, and they had told me to lie, to cover something up, I would have quit," Tierney said, referencing officials with the administration of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

"I don't need this job, I quit a better-paying job to take it. I can make more money in the private sector, I don't need it."

During the committee meeting, Gupta said there was an obvious taste to the water when he drank it. His wife, who is also a physician, wasn't pleased when she found out he was using it, he said.

Tierney — who was left little time to speak during the committee hearing — said she is drinking the water, bathing in it and otherwise using it. Tomblin said the same at a press conference later in the day.

"At the end of the day, people are going to believe what their physician is saying over what the administration is saying," Gupta told lawmakers.

Popovic, who came to Charleston for the day, said during the press conference she understands the basic question West Virginians want answered.

"Is your water safe? What I can say is with all the scientific evidence that we have, and with everything that numerous people have worked on so far, I can say that you can use your water however you like," she said.

"You can drink it. You can bathe in it. You can use it how you like."

Tomblin said "science suggests the water is safe," but that the state can't say it's safe with 100 percent certainty.

After the press conference, Popovic said the CDC doesn't like to use the word "safe," and hedged on whether that means pregnant women can now drink the water.

"What we want them to do is we want them empowered to feel that they can follow their instincts and do what they feel is good for them," Popovic said.

The CDC issued an advisory almost a week after the spill telling pregnant women not to drink water that has any level of MCHM. CDC and state officials have said it was made "out of an abundance of caution."

During the hearing, Gupta said the warning "obviously was a little late."

At her presentation earlier in the day, Tierney defended the actions of state health officials during a several "really challenging moments" in the last few weeks.

After the meeting, she acknowledged Gupta's views are different than her own.

"I guess we maybe have different philosophies. I feel that as in public health, we've got to be careful how we craft our statements to provide confidence to the public, especially when we're going on evidencedbased medicine." Gupta, as he did earlier in the week, pointed to two informal surveys conducted by the department that showed 1 percent and 3 percent of those surveyed felt the water was safe for drinking.

Tierney said she's doing the best she can to provide confidence to the public that the water is safe.

"I know I'm being honest, I know I'm being truthful, I know I'm being as transparent as I can. And if that doesn't give confidence, I'm kind of at a loss for where else to go."

People are still reporting symptoms they believe are connected to the spill, Tierney acknowledged. She said some people's skin is more sensitive than others.

That's something Gupta has said as well, although he dismissed the idea of blaming the "flu or something else" for the recent uptick in emergency room visits. Tierney and other state officials have said factors including flu season need to be considered.

After the hearing Tierney said if people continue to smell the telltale licorice odor coming out of their showers, they might want to "start the shower and maybe run the water for a few minutes before they get in. " After the press conference she said that was more of an aesthetic issue. Water that smells like licorice isn't necessarily dangerous, she said.

Gupta said he has received word from doctors locally and nationally advising against using the water.

He said communication — from all aspects of the government, including his department — has faltered at times, leading to lapses in public confidence.

"I find communications is probably always the challenging part of crisis management," Gupta said.

"Crisis management is part science, part art . . . When you have a very limited amount of science backing you up, the art of communication becomes a much bigger deal."

Gupta estimated his department has spent more than $100,000 responding to the crisis. The department has visited restaurants, spoke with those affected, checked out schools and more.

He'd like to see several changes to Senate Bill 373, the legislation recently created in response to the leak. He believes there needs to be more integration of emergency response efforts at the state and local levels; the state needs to create the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program, as recommended by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board; and establish a long-term medical monitoring program.

The monitoring program should last anywhere from 10 to 20 years, he said. He estimated the first year of a "bareboned" study would cost $750,000.

Tierney emphasized the state's commitment to providing safe water, adding the state has monitored possible medical ramifications of the spill "since day 1."

Also as she did last week, Tierney bashed the credibility of testing presented before the same Senate committee concerning formaldehyde and other aspects of the spill. She questioned the testing methods and the ability for MCHM to in any way lead to formaldehyde.

The committee asked Tierney to return Friday.


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