CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources is launching an investigation into the recent chemical spill in Kanawha County that led to the ongoing contamination crisis.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger (D-Berkeley), who chairs the commission, made the announcement Jan. 14, 2014, at the Capitol.
“This whole series of events is unacceptable,” said Unger. “While the response to this crisis has been commendable, the Legislature is determined to work to ensure that this never happens again.”
The chemical spill, originating from the property of Freedom Industries along the Elk River, caused a nine-county State of Emergency and a “Do Not Use” water order for more than 300,000 West Virginians.
Unger, who plans to introduce legislation that provides oversight of these types of storage facilities, said the Commission will also be looking at the state agencies responsible for oversight of these types of facilities.
“We want to find out how long this chemical was leaking and who knew about it, and if no one knew, why not. There will definitely be a change to the way things have been done in past,” Unger said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant continued her work to help West Virginia small businesses and workers hit hard by the recent water crisis.
Secretary Tennant testified before the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development Committee in support of House Bill 4175, the West Virginia Small Business Emergency Act. Secretary Tennant pledged to make approval of emergency rules a top priority in the Secretary of State’s Office and move as swiftly as possible to get businesses the assistance they need. According to the legislation, emergency rules must be drafted to outline the process through which assistance would be distributed.
During her testimony, Secretary Tennant also highlighted Emergency Unemployment Assistance that is available to West Virginia under the Federal Disaster Declaration. Secretary Tennant sent the attached letter to Governor Earl Ray Tomblin today urging his office to make the formal request for assistance as swiftly as possible in order to get workers the support they need.
“I spent days out on the water lines last week talking with folks and handing out water,” Secretary Tennant said. “I met employees at local restaurants like Arby’s and Shoney’s. Many of these folks are making ends meet on minimum wage salaries and tips. Even one day off of work can keep them from making their mortgage payment or paying their daycare bill. We have to act quickly to get these folks the support they need.”
Earlier this week, Secretary Tennant called on West Virginia American Water to provide water credits to small businesses to cover the necessary flushing process, ensuring that their water is safe to use.
Also, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a statement regarding the current status and continued course of action regarding the State of Emergency in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties.
“West Virginia American Water has recently lifted the DO NOT USE order for the last area - allowing families and businesses to begin the flushing process. However, agencies are responding to concerns in the Buffalo area of Putnam County and will continue to monitor that specific situation. Across the affected regions our testing teams will remain on the job to make sure the water company’s system complies with CDC guidelines.
“Following recent guidelines from the CDC, plant output will continue to be tested at parts per billion. As the system is fully restored, we will test at the parts per billion level to confirm non-detectable levels in the water distribution system.
“My team’s number one priority is the health and safety of those impacted by this crisis. My family is in the affected area. Many of the team’s families and neighbors are in the affected areas. This crisis hits home. The efforts we are taking are for all of our families.
“So far we have distributed more than 15 million bottles of water. We have more than 100 trailers on hand at the National Guard distribution center. Bottled water distribution at various locations in the affected areas will continue. I’ve asked the Director of Homeland Security to place additional orders so that water will be available well into next week.
I would also ask if you are stocked up on water, please refrain from taking free water from the emergency assistance centers. We’ve got to make sure water is available to those most in need. Also, please pay attention to any updates from my team and from West Virginia American Water Company. We are working hard to give you the most accurate and up to date information we have available.”
Tomblin hosted a community conference call last week.
Dr. Letitia Tierney, Commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health and the State’s Health Officer, and Adjutant General James A. Hoyer provided an overview of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines and testing protocol.
The following questions were submitted by members of the community and addressed by Dr. Tierney and General Hoyer.
Are you (Dr. Tierney) using the water?
Initially when I flushed my house, I did not detect any smell. Throughout the next couple of days, I did detect a smell. I have used it for drinking, bathing, and cooking-and as of today, I’m no longer detecting the odor in my home.
Why do I still smell licorice even though I’ve flushed my water lines?
MCHM has a low odor threshold-meaning you can smell MCHM at 100,000 times the no observable adverse effect level.
Will we continue testing? At what levels?
We will continue testing until the system has been sampled and tested at 1/100 parts per million-a level well below the CDC recommended threshold for public health. The CDC provided information that it believes there is no evidence to suggest that water levels below the laboratory limit of detection of 10 parts per billion (1/100 parts per million) would have adverse health effects, including for pregnant women.
Testing will continue and the Bureau of Public Health Office of Environmental Services will continue to monitor until the sampling throughout the system has reached the 1/100 ppm level.
Why is the water unsafe for pregnant women to drink but considered safe for everyone else to consume?
Doctors routinely advise pregnant women to avoid consuming a number of things-including caffeine, alcohol, raw or undercooked meat, unpasteurized dairy products, luncheon meats and hot dogs. Fetal cells are continuing to develop, which is why pregnant women have been encouraged to continue drinking bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system. The CDC provided us the guideline “out of an abundance of caution,” just the same as we do for caffeine, alcohol and unpasteurized dairy products.
What is causing the burns/rashes and emergency room visits, if people are using “safe” water?
We’ve been monitoring everyone who has presented to the hospital, and what they’ve been complaining of is not a burn like you and I would think of as a burn. Some doctors have described it as a “solar burn” which is similar to a sunburn. Basically, it’s red skin. Everyone has different sensitivities and as we move through the flushing process, sediment has been stirred up from your hot water tank and the pipes. Some sediment may be coming through the shower that you don’t even see. Because everyone has different sensitivities, some may be experiencing this and some may not.
These are topical only. They’re short-lived. They are easily treated with over-the-counter products. I would advise anybody who is seeing this type of reaction to speak with your physician. They won’t last. Once things settle down, these symptoms will go away.
Can children under three years of age consume the water?
DHHR confirmed the only guidance from the CDC is that “due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system.” The CDC provided information that they believe there is no evidence to suggest that water levels below the laboratory limit of detection of 10 parts per billion (1/100 parts per million) would have adverse health effects, including for pregnant women. Children were considered in these guidelines. Short-term exposure at these levels is not likely to cause any adverse health effects for children or others.
Are there known risks associated with this chemical mixing with household cleaners?
No. Household cleaning can continue normally.
Is this water harmful to my pets?
Per the Department of Agriculture’s press release: State Veterinarian Dr. Jewell Plumley said Friday afternoon, after continuing to seek consultation and advice from toxicologists and animal experts from across the country, there are no known risks to livestock that may have been exposed to the water.
How has the chemical spill impacted fish and other aquatic life?
DNR is coordinating with all appropriate agencies to monitor any potential impacts to aquatic organisms resulting from this chemical spill. The Wildlife Resources Section has had staff on site and has not observed or received any reports of dead fish at this time.
Will grey water from the affected West Virginia American Water systems have a negative impact on surrounding districts?
(Grey water sewage and flush water) Sewage goes to a treatment plant to be treated. Because Total Organic Carbon is measured and regulated, the treatment plant must notify DEP if unsafe levels of MCHM are present. At this time, there are no reports of unsafe levels. Following treatment, the water is sent into rivers and streams where any MCHM is further diluted into non-detectable levels. In the case of flush water, it is again diluted into non-detectable levels. There is no cause for concern for surrounding water intakes bringing in water at unsafe levels.
Does MCHM adhere or leech into plastics?
MCHM may temporarily adhere to plastic pipelines which could result in a lingering licorice smell for some time. The chemical is such that you can continue to smell it, even at 100,000 times below the no observable adverse effect level.
Are water distribution sites still available? If so, where and for how long?
Water distribution sites are still available and will continue to be available well into next week. In order to determine where and how long these sites will remain in effect, it’s important for you to reach out to your county emergency management office. Please note, the counties adjust and change distribution points based on need and availability. To find a water distribution location in your area, contact your local emergency management office or visit www.governor.wv.gov.
Will there be any future legislation presented to protect the integrity of our water?
Gov. Tomblin directed his legal team to work with the DEP to draft legislation to help prevent this type of crisis from happening again and anticipates introducing a bill next week. This legislation will: empower the DEP to implement an above ground storage tank regulatory program; require above ground storage tanks to be constructed and maintained in a safe manner; ensure public water systems have proper contingency plans in place to prepare for emergencies such as this; and requires public notice to affected municipalities, counties and the general public concerning regulated above ground storage tanks. The governor anticipates submitting this legislation to the Senate and House of Delegates early next week. The efforts will be coordinated with legislative leadership as well as West Virginia’s Congressional Delegation.
I’m breastfeeding, can I drink the water?
I (Dr. Tierney) understand your concern. This was taken into account concerning the safety factors provided by the CDC. Short-term exposure at these levels is not likely to cause any adverse health effects for children or others. If you are concerned check with your physician, and feel free to use bottled water as this is a personal decision.
I experienced nausea when I flushed my pipes, why is this?
It is important to remember we have old pipes, new pipes, copper pipes and iron pipes-flushing is causing the sediment to be stirred up. Even small amounts of copper can cause people to feel sick to their stomach and can make people vomit. This will not continue-it is a result of the flushing process.
Why are so many people going to the hospital?
There are a couple of reasons-we’re in the middle of flu season and virus season. Many of us haven’t been able to consistently wash our hands with soap and water. While the sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn’t great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many people do every winter. In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people and its okay to be seen by a health professional to ensure you’re okay. The flushing process may have caused the side effects as noted above. Also, the number of people who have been seen in hospitals is a very small number of people as it relates to the affected population. No one has been seriously ill. No one remains hospitalized.
In Washington, D.C., U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) today reached agreement on legislative language that will help protect Americans from chemical spills that threaten drinking water. This bill, the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, brings together in one place the tools to provide oversight of chemical facilities. It strengthens states’ ability to prevent chemical spills like the January 9th spill that contaminated the water supply in nine West Virginia counties and impacted more than 300,000 West Virginians. Senators Manchin and Boxer plan to introduce the legislation when Congress returns later this month.
The legislation includes common sense measures designed to ensure industrial facilities are properly inspected by state officials and both the chemical industry and emergency response agencies are prepared for future chemical incidents or emergencies.
Key principles in the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act include:
1. Requiring regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities,
2. Requiring industry to develop state-approved emergency response plans that meet at least minimum guidelines established in this bill,
3. Allowing states to recoup costs incurred from responding to emergencies, and
4. Ensuring drinking water systems have the tools and information to respond to emergencies.
Senator Manchin said, “No West Virginian or American should have to go through something like this again, and that is why I plan to introduce common sense legislation to make sure all chemicals are appropriately monitored. We can work to improve the safety of Americans by ensuring that chemicals are properly managed, while also balancing the positive impact the chemical industry has made to our country.”
Senator Boxer said, “This legislation protects children and families across the nation by providing the tools necessary to help prevent dangerous chemical spills that threaten their drinking water.”
“The fact that there was a lack of regulations which allowed this particular storage facility to go uninspected for so many years is absurd,” Senator Rockefeller said. “I’m encouraged we are taking these steps to bring some accountability to industry that will help protect West Virginia families and our state’s economy.”