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WV water company president: Can't just turn water on, off

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By JAMES E. CASTO

For The State Journal

"Why didn't you just turn off the water?"

That, says Jeff McIntyre, president of WestVirginia American Water Co., is the "No. 1 question" he's been askedsince the Jan. 9 leak of thousands of gallons of a coal-treating chemicals intothe Elk River upstream from his company's Charleston treatment plant.

Instead of cutting off thewater, the company issued a "Do Not Use" warning — an order that sent shockwaves through the community and continues to cause controversy more than sixweeks later. More than 300,000 people were told they could use the water toflush their toilets, but not much else. The "do not use" water order meantpeople couldn't drink it, cook with it or use it for a bath or shower. Theedict remained in place for days before being lifted gradually, neighborhood byneighborhood and followed by specific instructions for flushing pipes.

"It's a good question," McIntyre told a Huntington audienceFeb. 28. "But if you understand water treatment plants, you know you can't justturn them off and then just turn them back on."

McIntyre spoke at Heritage Station as part of the"Coffee and Conversation" series sponsored by the Huntington Regional Chamberof Commerce. The series features informal presentations by localbusiness leaders. Chamber President Cathy Burns said she invitedMcIntyre within days of the spill and was gratified that he immediatelyaccepted her offer. 

The water company chief reminded the audience of thenear-record cold temperatures that prevailed in early January. Many people wererunning their faucets to keep their lines from freezing, increasing the demandfor water.

"We were running the plant at max rate," he said. "Normallywe run 27 million gallons a day. We were running at 43 million.

"We also had leaks in the system, a result of the freezingand thawing that had been going on."

Shutting off the system, McIntyre said, would have left partsof downtown Charleston without water within 15 minutes and other parts of townwithin two hours.

"Before long, no one would have had any water," he said."That would have meant no water for fire protection. And you would have 300,000people unable to flush their toilets."

Moreover, McIntyre said, when the pipes emptied, the waterwould have been replaced by air.

"Before you could get water flowing again, you'd have tomanually open every valve and every fire hydrant to get the air out," he said."We estimate it would take more than 30 days to get that done and get waterback to everyone."

McIntyre said the Huntington and Charleston water treatmentplants are similar, but Huntington has two intakes — one above where theGuyandotte River flows into the Ohio River and one below.

"If something happened on the Guyandotte, we could close theintake above its mouth," he said. "In Charleston, we didn't have that.

"When the Charleston plant was designed, we asked for twointakes and that was rejected by both the Public Service Commission andthe KanawhaCounty Health Department."

In the wake of the Charleston spill, the WestVirginia Legislature is looking at a number of possible measuresregarding water plants, including requiring a second intake or some sort ofoff-line storage.

"We're going to partner with everyone to look at how watersystems can be made more robust as we go forward," McIntyre said. "In light ofthe recent event, are people going to be willing to pay more for a second levelof protection? The rate impact would be significant.

"In Charleston, you would have to tunnel under the city andgo 12 miles upriver on the Kanawha to get a second intake. You'd have to goabove the town of Belle. The area below that isn't Class A drinking water."

McIntyre said he believes the best course of action theLegislature could take to prevent future spills would be to insist on routinetank inspections by appropriate government agencies, including ensuringadequate secondary containment.

"We didn't create this problem," he said. "We're beingimpacted by it just like everybody else. Freedom Industries,which caused the spill, has filed for bankruptcy.

"They're going away. We're still here. And because we'restill here, we've been hit with a stack of lawsuits – 59 at last count."

McIntyre noted he's been drinking and using the water butunderstands why many people remain concerned about it. Much of that fear, hesaid, is based on the lingering licorice-like smell.

"Some people aren't going to be comfortable using the wateruntil the smell is gone," he said. "The water is back. But the public'sconfidence isn't."