Amid growing concerns over whether or not the water is actually safe for 300,000 West Virginians following a massive chemical spill into the water supply, the state’s governor said it was up to each of them to decide whether they use it.
“It’s your decision,” Gov. Tomblin told reporters at a press conference on Monday. “If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water then use bottled water.”
“I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe,” Tomblin continued. “But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
On Saturday, the last of the ‘do not use’ bans were lifted, meaning all of West Virginia American Water’s customers were given the green light to use and drink their water. While state officials have maintained that a level of the coal-cleaning chemical mixture, known as crude MCHM, below 1 part per million is safe, the justification for that threshold has been called into question.
Of primary concern is the fact that it is still unclear what exactly spilled and whether or not the proper tests have been conducted. Crude MCHM is a mixture of six chemicals but only the pure form of the main ingredient, 4-MCHM, has been studied. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set the 1 part per million threshold based on one study of 4-MCHM conducted by Eastman Chemical Company in 1991.
“If crude MCHM is truly what leaked, it’s possible that we don’t even know which of this ‘cocktail’ is most harmful,” Evan Hansen, environmental consultant with the Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies said in an earlier interview with Climate Progress. “We could have set a threshold based on the wrong one. We may be testing the wrong one.”
Of the Eastman study used by the CDC to set its guidelines, Wired science writer Deborah Blum notes, “there is no human toxicity data. These are studies in species ranging from fathead minnows to rabbits.” The Eastman studies told the company’s scientists that “this was not one of the worst compounds out there — but not one of the benign ones either.” And the lack of mutagenic effects they found would be more assuring, Blum writes, “if that finding had been verified by, say, anyone else, if someone, besides the company that manufactures the compound, could vouch for its safety.”
After a significant portion of the more than 300,000 affected residents were told their water was safe, the CDC released guidance warning pregnant women to drink bottled water until there were no detectable levels of crude MCHM. Health care professionals and state officials have also recommended that small children not drink the water and that schools only use bottled water.
West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre reiterated on Monday that the water was safe, underscoring his point by drinking tap water in front of reporters. And McIntyre disputed a recommendation from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, reported in the Charleston Gazette, that residents flush their home water systems until no odor is detected.
“Really, it’s not the best recommendation … This is an aesthetic issue below 1 part per million. It’s not a health-based issue,” McIntyre told the Charleston Daily Mail.
At Monday’s press conference, Tomblin also emphasized the 1 ppm safety standard. “We’ve been in this thing for 11 days. It’s a very complicated issue. I’m not a scientist, you know. I have to rely on the best information that I have,” Tomblin said.
“My major concern for the last 11 days has been the health and safety of our residents.”
Both Tomblin and McIntyre said the state will continue to test the water until no amount of the chemical is detected. After criticism that the spill exposed a history of lax oversight of the fossil fuel and chemical industries, on Monday Tomblin announced a “plan for a new regulatory program for above-ground storage tanks,” the Charleston Gazette reported.
When asked by Al Jazeera America’s Robert Ray whether he was drinking the water, Tomblin responded, “I drink it occasionally.”