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State to test water in homes after chemical spill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is creating a large in-home testing project to assess the effects of the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

Tomblin allocated $650,000 for the state Testing Assessment Project, or WV TAP, that will go entirely to a team of independent experts.

"It is time to let the political officials step aside, and let the scientists come in and do the work that we need them to," Tomblin said during a Tuesday evening press conference. 

Professor Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer with the University of South Alabama, and Jeff Rosen, an environmental statistician and head of Corona Environmental Consulting, are leading the project team, which will start work immediately.

Whelton, accompanied by Corona's Jennifer Clancy, said the project aims to answer many of the remaining questions that continue to shake public confidence in the water. 

"I drink the water here, I bathe in the water here, I believe it's safe for me," Whelton said.

"But there is a national and international discourse happening right now as to whether or not the water is safe in Charleston, West Virginia."

Officials believe at least 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a coal-washing chemical, and PPH leaked from two holes in a storage tank along the Elk River.

An unknown amount overwhelmed the West Virginia American Water treatment plant Jan. 9, leaving 300,000 West Virginians across nine counties without safe tap water.

Whelton said the WV TAP project will focus on three things: widespread in-home testing, analyzing crude MCHM's odor threshold and evaluating the existing 10-part-per-billion "non-detect" threshold with a panel of experts.

Whelton arrived in Charleston shortly after the spill with a team of students and others to conduct private testing. Since then, they have questioned the potential effects the chemicals could have in a home's pipes or water heaters.

Water pipes outside the home are typically made of different materials than those inside, he explained.

"Water utilities typically spend most of their efforts understanding materials that are in their system, not so much in people's homes," Whelton said.

Questions as to whether the chemicals can stick to pipes arose almost immediately after the spill. Those questions remain as multiple schools -- including Malden Elementary School Monday -- continue to show signs of the chemical more than a month after the spill.

West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre and Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, have said they don't think the chemicals stick to pipes.

An official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the same thing last week, citing a study. Whelton thinks he has seen the study and that it doesn't reference MCHM as the EPA official mentioned.

Whelton said he doesn't know if the chemical can stick to pipes, but said that will be one of the many aspects his team studies. The team will also look at how water temperature affects the chemical and whether it can stick in hot water heaters.

"This project is unprecedented," Whelton said. "And it will engage leading health assessment and drinking water and odor experts from across the world in determining the drinking water chemical level in affected homes." 

The testing will start with an initial pilot study of 10 homes, one in each affected county except for Kanawha. There will be two in Kanawha because it is the largest.

After the results of the pilot study come in, Whelton said the group will engage in widespread representative testing. The specific mechanisms for choosing people and testing methods still need to be determined, and the team intends to use more experts to help craft those parameters, Clancy said.

That will include statistical analysis from Rosen in an effort to explain why certain areas continued to show signs of chemicals in the water while others did not, Whelton said.

Whelton initially said the large-scale testing would stretch to more than 100 homes. After the press conference he said it could potentially reach thousands of homes.

He said the pilot stage would take about three weeks, and didn't provide a timeline for the larger testing portion of the project.

Whelton said the team would convene an international panel of experts to look at the 10 part per billion screening level. They're already in contact with two experts who are beginning to work on the project, and are officially expected to join the team next week. 

They'll also look at how much crude MCHM can be in the water and still be noticed by its odor. There have been many questions as to why people can smell the chemical after flushing, and McIntyre has said the only way the company knew its water filters weren't containing the leak was the smell.

Tomblin was initially resistant to the idea of in-home testing at a press conference last week. He said Tuesday evening testing could help assuage fears and provide answers for others in the future.

"The way I look at this, this is not just a West Virginia problem. To have an incident such as this, it's something that could happen all over the country," Tomblin said. 

Looking back, Tomblin said he doesn't think his administration should have done anything differently.

The state only has so much money, he said. The $650,000 is a start, but he and Whelton said they think the project will require substantial federal funding. Tomblin said he reached out to West Virginia's federal lawmakers to help procure federal funding to assess short-term and long-term health effects.

The CDC is helping local health departments assess whether reported symptoms were caused by the spill. Local officials have said more studies, and funding, are needed.

Whelton was one of several scientists to recently receive funding from the National Science Foundation for research of the spill. That funding is for in-lab research only.

McIntyre and Tomblin have spoken about the water company potentially contributing funding. Last week McIntyre said he thought Freedom should pay for everything, but that he and the governor were in discussions.

Tomblin said Tuesday the company offered "financial assistance" but the state has yet to accept.

Whelton said the project would be completed regardless of more funding.

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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