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Water company president says flushing is working

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre is confident the procedure created to flush contaminated water out of homes is working.

By "working," he means the water going into homes contains less than 1 part per million of crude MCHM, he said.

"It wasn't intended as a flushing procedure to get rid of every bit of the taste or the odor of this water," he said Thursday evening before the House Health and Human Resources Committee, which is considering legislation created in the wake of the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

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More recently, people in the nine-county affected area have complained their water still smells like licorice, the telltale odor of crude MCHM. Additionally, Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, has said health complaints at hospitals spiked after people were told to flush.

At the time the flushing procedure was announced, McIntyre said it wouldn't eliminate the smell. Thursday, he said he couldn't comment on whether flushing caused negative side effects - including reported hospital visits - recently at local schools.

"I have no facts to connect them," McIntyre said, referencing the chemical leak, flushing at those schools and the reported ailments.

McIntyre was joined at the hearing by spokeswoman Laura Jordan and Kelley Goes, an attorney with local law firm Jackson Kelly. Goes, a former longtime aide to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is helping represent the water company, Jordan said.

He said he's a numbers person, and he trusts the numbers provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So does Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health.

Tierney told delegates she's using the water, but understands people's concerns. When asked if the water was safe, she said each person has a different definition of "safe."

She is confident people, including pregnant women, can safely use the water. She acknowledged the CDC advisory about pregnant women, but said she thinks it's been "misunderstood from the beginning."

The CDC advisory was always a guideline that was meant to "empower" pregnant women to make a decision, Tierney said, echoing comments made Wednesday by a CDC doctor. She said potentially susceptible populations were taken into account by the CDC  in creating its 1 part per million level.

The CDC sent the advisory about pregnant women to the state days after it had accounted for such populations as one of its "safety" factors. The advisory, sent by CDC head Dr. Thomas Frieden, tells the state it might want to find a different drinking source for pregnant women.

Gupta and Tierney have differed on whether the water is safe. That's adding to public mistrust, said Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, during an exchange that was cordial but testy.

Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, asked Tierney why two of the most visible public health officials can't agree if the water is safe.

"With due respect, I bet you don't agree with every member of the House," Tierney said.

Procedural and health questions dominated the four-hour meeting.

McIntyre provided a brief overview of data known to the company: a total of 93,866 customers were affected. Of those, 86,866 are residential and 5,435 are commercial, he said.

The company's planned credit of 1,000 gallons per residential customer and 2,000 gallons per business should start going out in bills today, he said. That represents a $10.29 credit for residents and a $20.58 credit for businesses.

McIntyre didn't know off the top of his head how much the response has cost the company, and he didn't rule out a potential rate increase in the future.

In the wake of the derecho and other catastrophes, utilities presented cases to the Public Service Commission for passing on recovery costs to the consumer.

Any rate increase in this case can't be presented until at least Jan. 1, 2015.

House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, recommended Wednesday in a letter to Tomblin the water company pay for in-home testing.

Calls for the state to test water in homes have increased steadily. Late Wednesday the governor agreed to have his team evaluate testing possibilities.

After Thursday's meeting, McIntyre said he met with the governor during the day. They're still working out the details of any testing plan.

"Do I think we should have to? No, I think Freedom should have to pay for anything," McIntyre said.   

"But whether we will or won't, we're still in discussions."

Lane questioned McIntyre extensively about the company's ability to shoulder costs, and not pass them on to the taxpayer.

Lane pointed out that West Virginia American Water's parent company, American Water Works Company Inc., is a $7.4 billion publicly traded corporation that pays regular dividends to its shareholders.

At its current annual dividend rate of $1.12 a share, the company pays out nearly $200 million in profits to shareholders each year.

The health committee didn't take up Senate Bill 373, the measure that creates a regulatory system for aboveground storage tanks and outlines further emergency preparedness procedures.

Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, recently told the Daily Mail the committee could take up the bill as soon as Monday.

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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