Water flushing started Sunday; chemical levels coming down - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Water flushing started Sunday; chemical levels coming down

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West Virginia National Guard Lt. Col. Gregory L. Grant told media at a Jan. 11 briefing the levels of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that Freedom Industries spilled into the Elk River Jan. 9 were coming down, but were not low enough yet to drop the current "do not use" order that has been on parts of nine southern West Virginia counties.

"MCHM is not a product that we normally analyze in labs," Greg explained. "We are one part of a team that is working to resolve and get lab analysis with multiple other labs."

Grant said labs across the country don't have a method to run analysis on the chemical, so a method had to be developed, which took approximately 24 hours.

(CLICK HERE TO FIND RESOURCES AND MORE INFORMATION ON THE SPILL)

The testing initially took 46 minutes but has become more efficient, Grant said, and samples were now being tested at about 18 minutes.

The level the CDC recommends for safe consumption of the chemical is one part per million.

"That's the number we'd like to be below, and we're trending in that direction," Grant said. "Initially we had some numbers that were two or three parts per million, but we're down to one part per million and we need to consistently be below that for a 24-hour period."

Grant said some spikes had shown up in the testing, which may have been caused by the overnight rain in the area along with other environmental factors, but once the levels stay below one part per million for 24 hours, then the system can be flushed.

"We're doing that now to get some baseline numbers," he said. "All the trends are going in the right direction, and we're hoping we keep going in that direction.

"I don't see any reason why we won't."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said his administration's top priority remains unchanged: protecting the health and safety of West Virginians, particularly the most vulnerable.

"Not a lot is known about this chemical (MCHM) but I'm proud of how we've responded," Tomblin said. "We continue to closely monitor the ongoing remediation efforts, and we've made a lot of progress, particularly today."

Adj. Gen. James Hoyer explained that the testing teams will take more than 100 samples throughout the system overnight and throughout Sunday Jan. 12 to provide a "surge" of sample data.

He said he thought the numbers were going down because of both the Department of Environmental Protection's aggressive action to control the flow of the chemical and West Virginia American Water "aggressively treating" the water through its capabilities. He said the contaminated water would not come back to the testing sites, and once the tests stay under one part per million they can begin the flushing process.

Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency response with the DEP said less material is getting into the water because the source of the leak has been cut off, but the material remains in nearby concrete and soil.

"We're taking aggressive measures on the shoreline," Dorsey said. "Freedom Industries is the responsible party and as such, they're taking the lead on the clean-up and we're providing guidance."

Dorsey said people are at the plant with shovels, excavators, barges on the river and vacuum trucks.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams issued a statement Jan. 11 to say he'd received assurances from state officials and West Virginia American Water that the city's water treatment system is not in danger of being compromised.

"Water quality is being monitored on a frequent basis," Williams said.

DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman said he expected the investigation into the plant to be "ongoing for some time."

West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre compared the testing to putting a puzzle together.

"These individual samples are like a puzzle piece," he said. "We're trying to put these puzzle pieces together.

"It's very hard to look at individual samples and make any decision."

McIntyre said his company's plant has a process of using activated carbon for treating "these kind of events," it "it's simply been overwhelmed."

McIntyre said there is a plan to release detailed instructions to all the customers who have been under the "do not use" order once the order is lifted. Including how customers can safely flush, clean their pipes.

"We're finalizing those, but we will have instructions customers can understand for how to deal with their in-home situations," he said.

McIntyre said there are 175 water zones, and there's a chance the order may be able to be dropped in some of them at some point, but the interagency team would make the decision carefully.

He stressed that customers should not start the flushing process on their own.

"You'll just compromise the recovery efforts," he said. "Until you get the all-clear for your home, it's wasted effort, first of all, if you do it on your own."

The company will provide a credit to its customers for 1,000 gallons of water, but McIntyre said he couldn't speak for the area sewer departments as it relates to potential refunds or credits because they are separate entities.

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Karen Bowling said all the county health departments are sharing resources and working collaboratively to address the "economic and health realities" of the situation. The departments created a plan to allow food establishments to reopen after submitting written plans to demonstrate they can operate safely with an outside water source.

"This is a process, and we're working through this process in a collaborative manner," Bowling said. "Right now we're working on protocols for messaging to consumers once the ‘do not use' order is lifted, then we'll be able to provide all the residents in the nine county areas a mechanism to understand what they need to do in their homes and businesses.

Tomblin said he's still working with West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares to determine which schools may be closed in the coming days but no decisions had been made yet.

"We do need to look … to be sure this kind of incident does not happen again," Tomblin said. "And I will be working with the DEP secretary as we move through this legislative session."