The Times West Virginian

February 18, 2014

Tomblin: State of emergency to end soon

Seeking more tests on spilled chemicals

By Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday that he is days away from lifting a state of emergency related to last month’s chemical spill into a public water supply.

Hours later, he told federal health officials they should start funding more lab tests immediately on the little-known chemicals that spilled.

Tomblin told reporters that he hopes “in the next several days” to end the state of emergency, which has lasted almost 41 days. For about a month, residents have been cleared to use their water however they like, with the exception of pregnant women, who were urged to find a different water source. They have also now been told it is OK to use the water.

Tomblin said he let the emergency declaration continue partially because of the chemical’s lingering odor from some taps and showers.

“We’re now looking forward at the state of recovery right now,” Tomblin said.

In a letter Tuesday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tomblin said the federal agency’s standard for what chemical levels are safe to consume in drinking water is “considered protective of public health.”

Tomblin also requested more toxicology studies on lab animals right away because so few exist on the chemicals. He pressed the CDC to start analyzing health charts from people admitted to emergency rooms or hospitals with symptoms that could have resulted from chemical exposure.

He also requested the CDC’s guidance on how best to track people’s health effects over time.

“We believe you will agree there is a pressing need to assist the people of the State of West Virginia through further study of potential health effects resulting from exposure to water contaminated with crude MCHM and PPH,” Tomblin wrote to the CDC.

President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration Jan. 10 for West Virginia’s nine-county affected area. Obama’s signoff allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts.

FEMA paid for 75 percent of the emergency measures provided, which included distributing plenty of bottled water. The state absorbed the rest of the cost, Tomblin wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to federal officials.

Tomblin said ending the emergency status would not affect his appeal to secure more federal emergency money.

FEMA initially rejected the governor’s application for the agency to reimburse nonprofits and public agencies that responded to the crisis. State and local government departments and nonprofits incurred huge costs distributing water and other resources.

The Jan. 9 spill contaminated 300,000 residents’ water for days, rendering it usable only for fighting fires and flushing toilets. Many residents are still sticking with bottled water.

On Tuesday, Tomblin also said he is still not sure whether he supports tapping state reserves to monitor people’s long-term health after the spill.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, thinks Tomblin should use $10 million from the state’s rainy-day fund for 10 years of health monitoring. State lawmakers could approve the money, Unger said, but it would be easier with Tomblin’s support.

“I think there is a lot to learn and I think we continue to learn more every day as we have the professionals out there doing testing, and so forth,” Tomblin said. “That’ll be a decision that will be made down the road.”

House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, thinks monitoring is essential, but said it is debatable who should foot the bill — the state or the water company, West Virginia American Water. Freedom Industries, the company that spilled the chemicals, has filed for bankruptcy and isn’t likely to pay for it, Miley said.

Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the company is talking to Miley about the idea.

The water company has spent at least $132,000 providing bottled water from outside its system, not including bulk water from tanker trucks. Miley also has argued that the water company should pay for in-home water testing, but Tomblin said last week he hasn’t asked them for the help.

With $650,000 from the state, Tomblin has contracted an independent team that is testing in 10 homes across the region. The group is also studying the spilled chemical’s odor threshold and reviewing the CDC’s standard for the chemical in drinking water. Tomblin hopes to secure federal grants for additional in-home testing.