The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

February 22, 2014

Taxpayer-funded team testing water

Collects hundreds of samples from 10 homes following last month’s chemical spill

CHARLESTON — A taxpayer-funded research team has collected hundreds of water samples from 10 homes, in the hope of determining how much of a coal-cleaning chemical can be present in the water supply before it is too toxic for people to drink.

The team will also try to determine at what level the licorice-scented chemical — abbreviated as MCHM — can be smelled in the water. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project Team to conduct research after a chemical leak tainted the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians, still leaving many citizens with questions about water safety.

West Virginia Testing Assessment Project Team leader Dr. Andrew Whelton, a professor from the University of South Alabama, said 900 samples were taken in the 10 homes from kitchen and bathroom taps. Hot and cold water samples were taken.

The results are expected back in one to three weeks.

Whelton said the results of these studies will be used to define the parameters of the larger, 1,000-home study. The goal of the larger study will be to test the 10 parts-per-billion of MCHM threshold the state has declared an acceptable level for tap water.

This state standard is 100 times lower than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested standard of 1 part-per-million.

“We want to make sure we fully capture all of the information and all of the chemical analysis data at the sites of these 10 homes. We will use these results to design the much larger study,” he said. “We will design the study to be scientifically defensible based on data. That is why we are taking our time and taking so many samples.”

Jeff Rosen, of Corona Environmental Consulting, joined Whelton this week to lead the project. Rosen said odor analysis experts Michael J. McGuire, independent environmental engineer, and Mel Suffett, UCLA professor, have also been contracted to create an odor analysis of MCHM. The analysis will determine at what levels the little-known chemicals can be smelled in tap water.

Many residents have reported that their tap water emitted a licorice odor. Whelton said test teams at several of the houses also detected the odor.

Rosen noted it is possible the chemical may be smelled well below levels that are non-toxic.

In addition, Utah State Professor Craig Adams has also been brought on board to compile an exhaustive list of toxicity reports and tests on crude MCHM. This review will be used by a panel of experts to begin risk assessments.

Whelton said the government responded to the spill and water crisis the best they could with the scientific information they had on MCHM. Extensive testing on the chemical, however, should have been conducted a decade ago after the Sept. 11 attacks focused federal and state funds on possible terrorist attacks and water contamination.

This pilot project will allow the research team to pinpoint the scope of the larger project. “By the end of the project, we will have some answers,” he said.

Tomblin has approved an additional $112,000 for the project, bringing the total state funds allotted for the study up to $762,000.

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