One month after a major chemical leak spilled 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM into the Elk River and the water supply for 300,000 West Virginia residents, private testing found the main chemical ingredient in 40 percent of homes sampled.
All of the homes tested had followed the prescribed flushing procedure — several of them multiple times, said Evan Hansen, principal at Downstream Strategies, the environmental consulting firm that carried out the testing.
“I’m not surprised that MCHM is still being detected,” said Hansen. “In talking to people in the area, people are still reporting smells and some people are reporting reactions with their skin, so it seems clear that in some locations, the water isn’t clean yet.”
Last week, several schools in the area were forced to close after staff and students complained of the licorice-like smell characteristic of crude MCHM. One teacher reportedly fainted, and “several students and employees complained of lightheadedness and burning eyes and noses.”
Though West Virginia American Water gave its customers the green light to begin flushing their systems and using the water several weeks ago, none of the state and federal officials testifying at a congressional hearing on Monday would confirm that the water is indeed safe.
Hansen also emphasized that samples were taken from cold water taps and they ran the water for several minutes before taking a sample. Thus, the results report
water quality as delivered to homes from the West Virginia American Water distribution system.
Downstream’s testing detected 4-MCHM in the range of .011 to .13 parts per million, well below the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of 1 ppm. The 1 ppm threshold has repeatedly been called into question, however, due to the scarce scientific data on crude MCHM and the fact that it has never been tested on humans.
“It’s really important for people to know the water quality at their home,” said Hansen. “The testing that’s being done at fire hydrants is not necessarily representative of what’s going on in people’s homes.”
Over the course of the past month, government officials have not been testing the water in private homes and businesses. After initially brushing off the idea in a press conference last week, Governor Tomblin “later directed his spill-response team to come up with a plan for testing the water in a representative sample of the 100,000 homes and businesses impacted by the leak,” the Charleston Gazette reported.
The sampling carried out by Downstream Strategies and other private companies is only being done in households that can afford it, Hansen points out, making it all the more important that the state take necessary steps to assure the public they are actively and transparently working to ensure the safety of the water.
After a month of unanswered questions, West Virginians are running out of patience. When asked if there was any potential silver lining that could come out of the incident, 21-year-old Charleston resident Kellie Raines said simply, “I would hope so but at this point, I really don’t see it. ”