CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Researchers at West Virginia University have procured a grant to help them study the effects of the Elk River chemical spill.
The $50,000 grant, from the National Science Foundation, will let a team from WVU sample and analyze water from taps and rivers throughout the affected region in the Kanawha Valley.
Researchers have already begun that work, using university funds to send a team to Charleston to take water samples immediately after the disaster. They've taken tap water samples before, during and after the pipe flushing process at a home in downtown Charleston, and several locations on the edges of the affected area. They've also taken samples directly from the river, and the water treatment plant.
Locations include cold-water taps, water fountains and hot water systems of public buildings like hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Elk River samples are being drawn from the surface and several different depths.
Researchers will continue to analyze the data and take more samples in the coming weeks, eventually releasing a map of chemical exposure throughout the water distribution system to the public. Jennifer Weidhaas, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at WVU and one of the project's leaders, said they hope to release those results to the public within the next several weeks.
"We want to determine short and long-term concentrations of these chemicals that were released in the river," Weidhaas said. "Ultimately we can evaluate the risk of the spill to people in Charleston and the environment."
The Jan. 9 leak, which contaminated the tap water of more than 300,000 people, was of a chemical about which little is known.
About 10,000 gallons of the chemicals, crude MCHM, and PPH, a mixture of polyglycol ethers, leaked into the Elk River from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries.
The WVU team hopes their research -- encompassing both the extent of the damage and the success of cleanup efforts -- will be used to develop treatment plans for future chemical spills.
Weidhaas said WVU's involvement is critical. Her team will approach the spill differently than other involved parties, with an independent, scientific eye.
"We do need independent evaluation," she said. "We're going to ask very different questions than what an emergency responder is going to ask."
West Virginia American Water Co. gave the okay to use the water once the concentration of the chemical in tap water reached less than 1 part per million, an ad hoc standard developed with the federal Centers for Disease Control.
"Now their researchers need to pick up the ball and say whether, yes that is the right number," Weidhaas said. "And say here's what we can gather from it, and say here's how we can learn from it."
WVU sent a research team to Charleston even before it received this federal grant. The team qualified for this particular grant because of the urgency of the situation.
"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century," National Science Foundation Program Director William Cooper said in a release. "In instances such as this, where the situation is developing and public health is involved, timing is everything."
Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.ma...@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886.