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Officials at hearing won't say water is safe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - More than a month after the Freedom Industries chemical spill, none of the seven officials testifying at a congressional hearing in Charleston Monday could say whether the area's water supply is safe.

"That is a difficult thing to say because everyone has a different definition of safe," said Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health.

Federal lawmakers leading the hearing also learned a private company's October inspection of Freedom's tank farm along the Elk River found its tanks weren't "necessarily in full compliance" with federal standards.

The chemical spill, discovered by the state on Jan. 9, eventually overwhelmed the local West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant. That resulted in a do-not-use order for more than 15 percent of West Virginia's population.

Tierney was one of several state and local officials to testify Monday. Water company president Jeff McIntyre and Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chemical Safety Board chairman, also testified.

They appeared before four members of the nearly 60-member U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., led the hearing at the Kanawha County Courthouse and was joined by Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Daniel Webster, R-Fla. Webster is a Kanawha County native.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was also invited and allowed to ask questions.

Freedom President Gary Southern and members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were also invited but did not attend. All of the West Virginia lawmakers chastised Southern for not attending.

"There is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries, and it's not licorice," Rahall said.

After the hearing, Capito said she thought the testimony from those who did attend was beneficial.

"The biggest takeaway, however, is the disconcerting fact that no one is willing to say that our water is safe to drink," she said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.

In his opening statements, Shuster said the committee came to Charleston to hear firsthand what happened after the spill. He said he thought it was clear officials were "hedging" over the water's safety.

"Nobody sitting here is willing to say the water is safe," Shuster said, guessing it was an effort to avoid potential lawsuits.

Moure-Eraso didn't deny that. He said it takes plenty of information about a chemical to make such a claim, and there's still little known about crude MCHM and PPH.

That's part of the problem in effectively regulating tanks that hold such chemicals, officials said.

The professional inspectors who looked at Freedom's tanks used a safety standard that applies to "hazardous" chemicals. Because neither crude MCHM nor PPH are deemed "hazardous," tanks holding those chemicals aren't effectively regulated, Moure-Eraso said.

The lack of a "hazardous" classification also seemed to placate state environmental officials.

"Before the Freedom Industries release, the general thought process was that if the material in a given tank wasn't regulated by any of the multitude of state or federal programs, then it was probably harmless to both the public health and environment," state Department of Environmental Protection official Mike Dorsey said during the hearing.

"The fallacy of that type of assumption is clear now."

No one could say why students, teachers and others recently passed out or felt sick after encountering the telltale licorice odor of crude MCHM in area schools.  

Tierney had made a comment about differing definitions of "safe" before. On Monday, she added the idea that some people think parachuting off a bridge is safe.

McIntyre reiterated the "flushing" procedure was created for homes to bring the water within the 1 part per million "safe" level established by the CDC and not to eliminate odors.

"Just because you can smell something doesn't mean it's not safe," McIntyre said.

Manchin said he was surprised the water company couldn't shut down its treatment center. Dorsey testified not shutting it down "certainly compounded the problem."

McIntyre said a shutdown would have meant no water for toilet flushing or fire protection. He said due to pressure issues and the possibility of pipes breaking, the process would have taken more than one month "under optimum conditions."

In an unorthodox move, Shuster allowed seven residents to address the committee.

Sue Bird, who said she's lived in the Institute area for more than 70 years, said she and fellow residents have asked for more attention to chemical safety for years. She told McIntyre she would never trust the water again.

Another resident asked when the water would stop smelling. No one answered.

Two holes in tank leak

The Chemical Safety Board does know more about the tank that leaked.

Investigators found two holes, one 19 millimeters and another 10 millimeters, according to a picture provided by safety board lead investigator Johnnie Banks.

Taken from inside the tank, the picture shows corrosion on the inner walls around the holes. Moure-Eraso said the CSB is considering requiring corrosion-resistant materials for future tank construction.

The safety board also discovered Freedom's tanks were inspected by a private company in October. The review found the tanks were "maintained to some structural adequacy, but not necessarily in full compliance with" federal standards.

Dorsey originally said he thought the hole in the tank was about one inch in diameter, and he was most recently told by Freedom that at least 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked.

West Virginia University's Paul Ziemkiewicz had estimated a one-inch hole likely leaked for at least 20 hours.

The smaller size reported by safety board investigators could have affected how long the chemical leaked. Ziemkiewicz said he thought the tank could have been leaking for "months."

After hearing three different estimated leak totals from Freedom, Dorsey said he was going to wait until the safety board determined how much of the chemical leaked into the river.

For now, the site is contained, he said. But he expected the DEP would find more of the chemical on site once the remaining tanks are removed.

A 'wake-up' call

This is the third time since 2008 that a team from the safety board has responded to an event in the Kanawha Valley. The board has recommended the state and county work to create a hazardous chemical release prevention program, among other proposed fixes.

"Perhaps qualified inspectors would have considered aging chemical storage tanks, located just upstream from a public drinking water treatment plant, to be potentially 'highly hazardous' and worthy of a closer look," Moure-Eraso said.

Manchin and others said the spill is a "wake-up call" for the nation. He's already proposed a measure with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., calling for greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks and better emergency management preparedness.

In a statement, Rockefeller thanked the committee for coming to Charleston and criticized the idea that companies have the public's best interest at heart.

"Too many in industry are driven solely by maximized profits, and this cynical strategy has caused tremendous harm to West Virginians' well-being and has shaken their sense of our state's future," Rockefeller said.

Capito said she plans today to introduce the Ensuring Access to Clean Water Act, a measure she said is similar to Manchin and Rockefeller's bill.

At the state level, a House of Delegates committee is scheduled to take up a bill enhancing aboveground storage tank regulation and emergency preparedness standards Wednesday.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

 


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